lies like truth: April 2008 Archives

Today I listened to the film director Mike Leigh give four interviews. Or, to be more precise, I listened to him give three interviews. By the time I got to the fourth, I had to abort mission. I felt overwhelmed.

Leigh is in San Francisco to receive the director's award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and stir up some buzz for his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky which comes out in the in the U.S. later this year. I took the occasion of his visit to pitch my editor at The Believer Magazine the idea of doing an interview with Leigh. The editor gave the idea her blessing, and I was lucky enough to be granted an interview with the great British auteur.

Reading and listening to other Q&A's with an interview subject is, at least for me, an important part of the research process for a journalistic profile.

In my opinion, you can never overdose on research. There's always more to learn about an interview subject; more ways to think about their lives and work in order to come up with insightful and hopefully slightly unusual questions and conversation points for a meeting. As such, I had done a fair bit of reading. I'd re-watched some of Leigh's films. I spent an entire morning on YouTube scouting for Leigh-related video clips. The process was entirely pleasurable. But never have I felt so keenly aware of the problems inherent in the business of interview subjects being forced to regurgitate the same material over and over again for the sake of the media.

My actual interview with Leigh went as well as I could have hoped for considering the fact that I spent the morning wondering what on earth I could find to ask a hero of mine who'd given countless press interviews during a career spanning more than three decades. Thankfully, Leigh was in a gregarious mood and even complimented me on the fact that I managed to ask him a few questions that he'd never heard before. When the Festival press officer came in to the interview room to tell Leigh that our time was up, he even told her to go away and come back in 10 minutes so that we could continue our conversation. Yet as fun as our conversation was, I experienced complete Mike Leigh overkill by the time I got home.

It all started with the interview with Leigh I caught on the radio as I was driving into San Francisco from my home in Oakland to meet the director. Michael Krasny, the host of KQED 88.5FM's Forum program, interviewed Leigh for about half an hour, asking him a range of fairly run-of-the-mill questions about his films and taking calls from listeners. Next came my meeting. Then, in the evening, I went to hear Leigh in conversation with David D'Arcy of Screen International at The Castro movie theatre. D'Arcy asked some of the same questions that Krasny and I had asked. Then there were more (mostly uninspired) audience questions. When I drove home, I turned on the radio again, and happened to catch the start of the re-run of Krasny's interview with Leigh from the morning. It was too much. I turned it off.

Clearly I have no stamina for these things. Remarkably, Leigh managed to sound engaging and interested through all of these interviews -- and that's to say nothing of the several additional journalists he met with today whose conversations I wasn't party to. Leigh's been answering the same questions for years now, and yet he still seems to relish going into the details of how he works and the state of filmmaking in general. Even when people ask dumb questions, he generally manages to turn them around and give something back that's intelligible and often witty.

I can't quite decide if Leigh is the most tolerant, generous and patient filmmaker in the world, whether he's a sucker for punishment, or whether he simply likes the sound of his own voice. Perhaps a desire to share his joy of filmmaking with audiences and readers supercedes the jetlag, the silly questions and the endless repetition. I doubt I'll forget today, at any rate. 

I was wrong: After all, perhaps there is such a thing as too much research.

April 30, 2008 11:05 PM | | Comments (0)
For the last few days, I've been wearing a necklace fashioned from an antique dominoe. I picked the trinket up in a store in Sonoma a few months ago, but have hardly worn it until now. I'm wearing the necklace in response to an arresting article that appeared in last Wednesday's New York Times by Marc Lacey about how the game of dominoes has come to dominate the lives of many poor Haitians. What's striking are the strange and tragi-comic stakes for which the game is played. Writes Lacey:

The beauty of dominoes is that it requires not even a single gourde, Haiti's currency, to compete. That is not to say, however, that there is no price to pay.

Dominoes are played in two-person teams or with each player competing individually. Clothespins are merely one of many techniques Haitians employ to punish those who lose four games in a row.

Some approaches focus less on pain and more on ridicule, like forcing a losing player to wear an empty sugar sack over his head or a brightly colored oversized hat. Other losers might have powder wiped on their faces, turning their brown skin white, or be forced to wear a heavy coat so they suffer in the heat.

The particular method of suffering depends on the rules at a particular table that day, which vary widely across the country.

Losers are sometimes made to salute any person who approaches the table.

Or to drink a glass of water every time they lose a game, with no bathroom breaks.

Or to fetch any domino that another player tosses away from the table, even if it happens to land in a sewage ditch.

On any given day, the players say, anyone can end up a loser.

The potent relationship between suffering and play embodied by the Haitian approach to dominoes has been explored in the work of many artists. It's there in the death-rattle antics of Hamm and Clov in Beckett's Endgame for instance. Watching Mike Leigh's 1993 film, Naked, yesterday returning to the Bay Area from New York on the plane also brought Lacey's article to mind through Leigh's constant blurring of the line between courtship rituals and violence.

In one of the most devastating scenes of the film, the main character, Johnny, flirts with an older woman but ultimately rejects her out of disgust at her dependence on drink to dull pain.

Like the dominoes players in Haiti inflicting physical forfeits on themsleves and each other in the pursuit of "leisure," so pain goes hand-in-hand with pleasure. Or, to be more accurate, both life and art suggest that feeling pain in life, though undesired, is better than feeling nothing at all.
April 29, 2008 11:32 PM | | Comments (0)
David Mamet's brassy Broadway comedy about a president facing a tough reelection season, November, was more or less been savaged by the New York critics when it opened in January. Ben Brantley called it "glib and jaunty" and "an easy laugh machine" in his review for The New York Times; "the play rings false," wrote Jeremy McCarter in New York magazine. The play may not be as intelligent as Mamet's screenplay for Wag the Dog in terms of its satire on political spin, many of the jokes are cheap, and the plot may be as far-fetched as the outcome of the 2000 U.S. elections. But the production, which I witnessed over the weekend during a trip to New York, has merits nonetheless.

Chief among these is probably one of the most brilliantly conceived and beautifully constructed stage props I've ever seen. I'm talking about the antique globe that stands inconspicuously in a corner of set for half of the play, before suddenly taking on a new and unexpected life as a fetishistic kind of mini-bar. "I understand the world," says President Charles "Chuck" Smith (played at caffeinated pitch by Nathan Lane), taking the top of his globe-shaped drinks cooler off like it's the lid of a giant banqueting dish and casually reaching for a bottle of ice-cold beer. The prop is only used once during the course of the play, but Mamet's entire satire is right there inside that bit of office furniture along with those Budweisers.

November also has some interesting things to say about the relationship between performance and politics, a subject close to my heart right now.

One of the play's core themes is the political machine's foregrounding of superficial form over substantive content. As such, news of major and pressing world events such as the war in Iraq and the possibility of an invasion by Iran are quickly superceded by, among other nonsensical issues, the President's desire to exhort as much money as he can out of a representative of the National Association of Turkey By-Products Manufacturers in order to fund his presidential library.

Mamet further pokes fun at Smith's obsession with empty gesture by making the character refer in a ham-fisted way to cue cards containing personal information about all the people the president meets. The idea behind the cards is to convey the (false) impression that the President knows and cares about the little details of his subjects' lives. Elsewhere, and on a related note, one of the most memorable scenes occurs when Smith's right-hand-man, Archer Brown (a slick Dylan Baker) hands the President a list of "off-the-cuff remarks" to memorize and insert into the next day's business. The oxymoron inherent in rehearsing something that is supposed to be improvisatory tells us a lot about the extent to which politicians' behavior can be likened to a carefully-manicured garden lawn -- and just how easy it is for weeds to grow there nonetheless.

There's no subtlety to November. The farce is as broad as Lane's maniacal chipmunk grin. Yet that's the point. Lane may spend more of his time on stage mugging than acting, but there's a nugget of truth to his pretty awful performance. The entire play is a study in bad acting after all. It perfectly reflects just how bad the acting can be in The Whitehouse.
April 28, 2008 6:03 AM | | Comments (0)
When Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die," he probably had the plays of Samuel Beckett in the back of his mind.

These words came flooding back to me last night after I experienced a preview performance of Beckett's Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

Director Andrei Belgrader's production features an all-star cast: the movie actor John Turturro as Hamm, The Sopranos regular Max Casella as Clov, revered stage actor Alvin Epstein (who, among other things, originated the role of Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot) as Nag, and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch as Nell. Even though the production had some vivid moments, it lacked one element crucial to the successful staging of Beckett's full-length plays: humor.

My heart nearly broke during the poignant exchanges between Nag and Nell. Epstein and Stritch cut such frail figures. They act their parts like sighs. There is also a note of terrible sweetness in their eulogizing about the past.

Casella and Turturro are at their best when angry at each other. Casella's fury is particularly engrossing. He seems utterly worn down and at the very end of his rope with his life as a reluctant caregiver. Clov's moments of vengeful mischief against Hamm are similarly powerful. I had always assumed that when Clov tells Hamm "there are no more painkillers" he's telling the truth. But Casella made me think that he was playing another practical joke on his awful boss. Standing, twisted on stage with a small round jar in his hands and a glint of malice in his eye, Casella suggests that he might be telling a lie.

But -- at least in preview -- the 75-minute production drags and ultimately fails to help me connect with the tragedy at its heart, probably because Belgrader doesn't seem all that interested in exploring the play's vital streak of vaudeville comedy. The last production of Endgame I witnessed, by Cutting Ball in San Francisco, played up the slapstick elements. This made the audience painfully aware of the cosmic joke that underpins human life as viewed through a Beckettian lens. I only cracked a couple of half-hearted smiles at BAM last night, whereas belly laughs were required.
April 27, 2008 8:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Performers have all kinds of techniques for dealing with pre-performance nerves. Some do yoga, others meditate, a third groupp swigs Jack Daniels. Writers have their own issues to deal with like writer's block, but it's only infrequently, generally speaking, that we have to get up and perform in public.

There's quite a lot of performance going on in this writer's life right now between various interviews, presentations and facing the prospect of singing my first solo vocal recital in a couple of weeks time.

A dear friend of mine in New York who's on the voice faculty of the Drama department at Yale had a couple of interesting ideas for dealing with nerves if you have to sing in public. This stuff probably won't come as news to anyone who's a performer, but just might be helpful to those among us who write for a living and suddenly find themselves forced to belt out the "Star Spangled Banner" or "O Mi Bambino Caro" before a live audience.

1. Butterflies are natural. Just let them dance about in your stomach. Concentrate on keeping them there. Try not to let them loose into your upper chest or neck.

2. Focus your attention on the narrative or emotional content of the song you are singing. Focusing intently on the "given circumstances" of what you are singing generally overrides nerves.

Both useful pieces of advice. Can't wait to try them out.
April 25, 2008 6:12 AM | | Comments (0)
I'm hard-pressed to find a more engrossing and accurate metaphor for the current state of play between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama than the World Wrestling Entertainment spoof wrestling match between the two Senators that's been making the rounds on YouTube for the last couple of days.

Performers dressed as the two contendors for the Democratic nomination -- Obama embellished with a pair of large protruding ears and Clinton with a puffy wig -- duke it out in the ring in front of cheering crowds. Bill Clinton is on hand to give his wife support, which seems a little unfair to Obama who has no second and must face his opponent alone.

At the end of the short fight, neither Senator has won. Instead, an archetypal, spandex-short-wearing wrestler -- huge, tattooed, and oiled -- stomps into the ring and destroys the two politicians.

The champion wrestler isn't outfitted with John McCain's weak chin. That would be going too far. But you don't need the man to look like the Republican Presidential nominee to read between the lines and see what will happen to the Democratic cause if Obama and Clinton continue to spat.

The clip is pure theatre. Wrestling is the most theatrical of all sports and the WWE fight between Clinton and Obama only serves to make its links with politics even more explicit.

April 23, 2008 6:51 PM | | Comments (0)
My editor at SF Weekly didn't approve of the second version of a review I wrote about a production of  Ellen McLaughlin's The Trojan Women at Aurora Theatre. He decided to go with the first version, which appears in the paper today, on the grounds that my re-written essay, with its London-focused introduction and conclusion "lacks relevance to a San Fran audience" and "seemed forced and tacked on."

For the published version, follow this link. (Scroll way down the page to find the "stage" section.)

I think I like the new version better though, so I thought I'd post it here:

Recently, the London authorities announced the names of six artists shortlisted for the chance to create a new work of art for one of the city's key landmarks, Trafalgar Square. With its central location, grand fountains and imposing statue of Admiral Nelson atop a 151-foot column flanked by four stately-looking bronze lions, the Square pays tribute to one of the U.K.'s most decisive military victories - the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. One of the finalists in the competition, Jeremy Deller, is causing controversy for his proposal to put a real car wrecked in the Iraq War on a plinth in the Square. Entitled "The Spoils of War (Memorial for an Unknown Civilian)" Deller's piece of public art, if selected, would doubtless give all of London pause for thought for its sobering message about the monstrous effects of conflict on civilians.

Playwright Ellen McLaughlin similarly hopes to force people leading comfortable lives in the U.S. to pay attention to the plight of citizens caught up in war with The Trojan Women, her contemporary adaptation of a famous anti-war play of the same name written by Ancient Greek playwright Euripides in 415 B.C. Like Euripides play before her, McLaughlin's haunting, hour-long drama takes place directly after the fall of the city of Troy to the Greek army following a decade of fighting prompted by the Trojan prince Paris' kidnapping of the beautiful Spartan queen, Helen. With all of Troy's male population either dead or vanished, the city's women gather infront of their smoldering city at the play's opening to commiserate the unhappy fate that awaits them as slaves or concubines to the Greeks.

Euripides wrote his drama to express his feelings of revulsion at his country's aggressive 416 B.C. campaign against the neutral island state of Melos. McLaughlin originally penned hers in the mid-1990s in response to the plight of refugees displaced by the Balkan conflict. Aurora Theatre's modern-dress, Farsi and Croatian-peppered professional world premiere production (which is based on McLaughlin's rewrite of her play for Fordham University in 2003) aims to be more universal. Directed by Barbara Oliver and set in what looks like a timeless, placeless wasteland, the play's message might equally apply to recent or current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan or Tibet. The eternality of Aurora's approach underscores a truism about the nature of wars - how they wreak havoc on civilizations no matter when or where they occur. But specificity rather than universality may be what's needed to transform The Trojan Women from being yet another - albeit affecting -- anti-war play to an impactful theatrical event.

McLaughlin's drama distinguishes itself from other works in the anti-war play cannon through its penetrating exploration of the rage and desperation of the victimized Trojans. The characters' helpless anger comes across acutely in the scene where they physically attack Helen, the woman whom they view as the perpetrator of their suffering. In a bold departure from Euripides' text, the chorus throws itself at the Spartan woman, intent on literally ripping the beauty that caused so much ill from her body and face. But despite being brought to her knees, Helen remains bold. Bloody and bruised with her arms tied to a yoke around her neck like a sacrificial beast, the character, played with swaggering pride by actor Nora el Samahy, ought to look like the image of defeat. But el Samahy manages to convey dignity even in her sorry-looking state. Though McLaughlin's decision to give the chorus a physical outlet for its anger against Helen seems gratuitous, it deftly reveals the women's impotent rage.

Profoundly moving performances from the other actors further forces Euripides' ancient tale to resonate across millennia. As portrayed with understated resilience by Carla Spindt, Troy's fallen queen, Hecuba, tries to set an example of strength to her people. Yet she appears exhausted and almost resigned to her fate. As Hecuba's mad daughter Cassandra, Sarah Nealis bristles with nervous energy and lucid-hysterical defiance. "These are the men you fear?" she says, with incredulity. "Pity them!" Hecuba's daughter-in-law, Andromache, meanwhile, quickly becomes the real focus of our pity. The moment when the Greeks force Cassandra to surrender her son Astyanax so that they might put him to death is the most sickening of the play, owing largely to Emilie Talbot's feeling yet unsentimental performance as Cassandra.

Despite the eternal relevance of the story, the savage lyricism of McLaughlin's writing and the power of Aurora's production, it's unnervingly easy to disengage oneself from the events on stage soon after the play ends. The idea that the story could take place at any time and in any place somehow makes them seem remote to an audience living in cushy Northern California in 2008. John Iacovelli's striking set design ought to provide a direct connection between the plight of the Trojan victims and contemporary Bay Area audiences. What appears to be a cluster of massive rusty square metal pipes reminiscent of a sewage plant or a ventilation system in a dilapidated factory, is apparently a reproduction of the Vaillancourt Fountain - a 1971 water sculpture which occupies a space near The Ferry Building at the end of Market Street. The trouble is, short of a strong familiarity with this piece of public art, it's pretty difficult to decipher the play's local setting. I'm not suggesting that the Aurora Theatre should hang a sign saying "This way to the Ferry Building" above the stage, but a program note would be useful. (I only found out about the play's locale when I read about it in one of the local dailies after seeing the show.) By being clearer that the events in The Trojan Women are supposed to unfold neither in some ancient mythical city nor on a random sewage farm, but right here in San Francisco right now, the Aurora Theatre could well make the cruelties of war seem all the more immediate to its audiences.

Immediacy can be problematic, though. Back in London, British art pundits are excited about Deller's Trafalgar Square sculpture plans. Some consider "The Spoils of War" to be the best of the six short-listed works. But the impact of putting an Iraqi civilian's crushed car up on a plinth in one of the most highly trafficked spots of a country that's been responsible for the deaths of so many Iraqis over the past few years, may be too much for Britain's patriotic soul to bare. As a result, Deller's work is unlikely to be realized. "A real destroyed car, from a real war, in the middle of London on a public square that commemorates a famous naval victory?" wrote art journalist Jonathan Jones in The Guardian recently. "Come on, it's not likely."

If Euripides was able to get away with staging The Trojan Women in his home country (and win a major prize at the most renowned Greek drama festival for the play to boot), then Deller's statue ought to see the light of day. The question is, will London's gatekeepers prove themselves to be as open-minded as the Ancient Athenians?

P.S.I'll be running around on the East Coast for five days and may not have the opportunity to post. Back at my desk on Tuesday morning...
April 22, 2008 9:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Today I was approached by a local theatre company asking if I'd help with its upcoming fundraiser. The company is planning on auctioning off an evening at the theatre...with me. The idea is that I will go to see a play with three of the highest bidders and then the four of us will head out for post-show drinks to discuss what just transpired on stage.

I must admit that I'm very flattered to have been asked to do this and it sounds like a fun way to spend an evening. But I'm a little flummoxed by the proposal. For who in their right mind would part with their hard-earned cash for the chance to spend an evening at the theatre with the critic of an alternative weekly in San Francisco? It's hard enough on occasion to get friends to join me to see shows for free. Still, I'm game, though I doubt I'll start a bidding war.
April 21, 2008 6:37 PM | | Comments (4)
A few days ago, after years of trying, I finally got to sample my first ever deep-fried Twinkie (DFT). I won't go as far as to say that it was a religious experience, but it was otherworldly -- a bit like experiencing unusual performance art, which is why the DFT deserves a mention here.

Before I go on, I should probably take a moment to explain what a DFT is. It looks like a battered, deep-fried hot dog on a stick, but it's really a battered, deep-fried vanilla-cream-centered sponge finger cake on a stick. The regular, un-tampered-with Twinkies can be found at any American convenience store or gas station. They're tasty, and, need I say it, exceedingly trashy. The Surgeon General should probably insist that each pack be sold with a health warning on it, like cigarettes. But a marvelous transformation takes place when the confection is dipped in fish batter, frozen overnight and immersed in a vat of canola oil.

I heard about the deep-friend Twinkie stand at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk long long before I first visited the quaint Pacific town on the Northern California coast. Vegan and raw food afficionados I know in San Francisco spoke in almost hallowed terms about the stand -- how sampling its wares regularly converted people who would normally choose starvation over nibbling a Twinkie (or indeed any Hostess product) into DFT addicts.

When I went to Santa Cruz for the first time in 2003, I made a beeline for the Boardwalk, only to find the stand shut. I had to make do with some kettle corn. It was stale. I was disappointed. The same thing happened the second, third and fourth time I made the pilgrimage to Santa Cruz. Each time I got to the stand, even on a busy weekend in high summer, it was boarded up. One time, the cause was a malfuntioning fryer. Another time, I simply got there too late and business was done for the day. I started to think that the Boardwalk Gods were having a joke at my expense, perhaps because I was too chicken to go on any of the surrounding fairground rides.

Finally, a few days ago, while on a business trip to Santa Cruz, I managed to get to the Boardwalk when the stand was actually open. I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn't dreaming. As I approached the stand, I half expected the guy at the counter to tell me that he'd had a rush on DFTs and was all out for the day. But he just took my order. I paid $3 for my DFT and wasted no time to taste what I had been waiting for all these years.

I was not disappointed. Food writer Melissa Clark did a pretty good job nof describing the DFT experience in The New York Times in May 2002:

"Something magical occurs when the pastry hits the hot oil. The creamy white vegetable shortening filling liquefies, impregnating the sponge cake with its luscious vanilla flavor. . . The cake itself softens and warms, nearly melting, contrasting with the crisp, deep-fried crust in a buttery and suave way. The piece de resistance, however, is a ruby-hued berry sauce, adding a tart sophistication to all that airy sugary goodness."

Wanting to take a purist approach to my first DFT, I didn't try any sauce with mine. Next time, I may give the chocolate syrup a whirl. But the effect of the confection was almost immediate on my system. I don't know if I was feeling the effects of a sugar, fat and chemical high, but Santa Cruz seemed even sunnier and more colorful than usual that afternoon.
April 20, 2008 6:28 PM | | Comments (2)
I've been to Mission Dolores in San Francisco several times over the past seven years to play the oboe in orchestral concerts, but never once have I taken the time to look around and think about the building. The Franciscan base, officially known as Misión San Francisco de Asís, was founded June 29, 1776 under the direction of Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784). This makes it the oldest original intact Mission in California and the oldest building in San Francisco. Serra established a chain of 21 missions up and down the California coast from San Diego to Sonoma.

Yesterday, while researching an article about a series of Mexican Baroque era choral music to be given by the all-male vocal ensemble Chanticleer up and down the so-called Camino Real in May, the Mission's curator, Andy Galvan, took me on an interesting tour of the old church building. (I'd never been inside it before; the 19th century basilica next door is much bigger and therefore hosts most concerts and other major public events.) The modest adobe Old Mission building reveals more about the relationship between the Spanish missionaries and the native population than meets the untrained eye. For that reason, it was great to have a guide on my inaugural visit.

Galvan himself has a fascinating past: his great-great-great-great grandfather, a Bay Miwok Indian, was baptized at Mission Dolores. His great-great-great grandparents are buried in the Mission Dolores graveyard, with its life-size statue of Serra pensively looking downwards at the earth.

The inside of the church is European Baroque in style. The ornate, faux-marble revedos is original. It dates back to 1797. Pillars and statuettes of Franciscan friars decorate the walls. A stone font lurks in a shady alcove. There's a raised wooden balcony at the back.

Only by looking upwards do you get a sense of the legacy of the Indians who built the church and learned and sang about the Catholic faith in it. The ceiling provides the one concession to native Ohlone art with its bright green, red, ocher and white Chevron arrow-shaped design. It's a stunning contrast to the rest of the church's interior (see image above.)

Similarly, only when you look more closely at one of the statues in the church do you really get a sense of the essential contradiction at the heart of the missionaries' enterprise in California. Of all the beatific-looking figureheads that adorn the church walls, a Franciscan friar stands out for wearing a soldier's armor over his religious robes and carrying a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. The statue is arresting because it so clearly tells you what founding missions in California was all about -- spreading the gospel no matter the human cost. Religion and violence are united in this effigy with simple visual immediacy.

As I walked out into the churchyard into the Spring sun, all I could think about was how history repeats itself. But just as hundreds of people walk past the statue everyday without noticing the contradictions it embodies, very few seem to pay attention to the cyclical impulses that drive world events.

Later that day, when I went to Aurora Theatre in Berkeley to see Ellen McLaughlin's savagely poetic world premiere adaptation of Euripides' The Trojan Women, the image of the statue in the church came rushing back into my mind. McLaughlin's anti-war play recycles an ancient and eternal message about the destruction of war. Yet people make the same mistakes over and over again.
April 17, 2008 10:09 PM | | Comments (0)
When I auditioned for a role in Hildegard von Bingen's musical drama Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) I thought I'd be lucky to get a small solo part. Somehow though, I was offered the key role of "The Soul" in the famous German abbess' 12th century morality play -- the oldest of its kind existent in the world today. Exciting news indeed for someone who's never sung a solo role in a public performance (unless you count playing Peter Pan in a musical at grade school) much less done so in plainchant.

Chant, I'm discovering, has its own set of amorphous yet nonetheless precise rules for performance. No one really knows how Bingen's music was performed, so the best we can do is make educated guesses about it. I've heard many different interpretations of her music. Needless to say, no two sound anything like each other. Some versions are slow and stately while others skip along playfully. Some feature full musical accompaniments, while others only provide a drone or nothing at all. Some require the singers to use vibrato while others go for a purer sound. I even heard one recording with an awful artificial "reverb" effect that distorted the singer's voice until it sounded like she was a member of the Irish folk-rock group Clannad.

Hildegard's music is fiendishly hard to learn and even more tricky to memorize, which I have to do prior to rehearsals which begin in June. Lacking real melodies, a regular pulse and even bar lines, getting a feel for the shape of each musical number is challenging. I'm also finding myself struggling with getting my lips around the Germanized Latin, which I've never dealt with before (remembering, for example, that the word "quod" is pronounced "qvod".)

Yet somehow the music so easily slips under one's skin. I find myself humming phrases to myself at different times during the day and falling asleep to half-remembered snatches at night. The other thing I love about Ordo is how so much of The Soul's part sits so comfortably in the middle of my range. Hildegard is known for skipping about between far-flung notes and demanding two-octave-plus ranges from singers. But for some reason, The Soul is tailormade for a mezzo soprano. The vocal lines, once you've got a grip on the notes and those awkward little trill things whose official name I can't recall, feel fairly effortless. They don't require the singer to growl down in the depths or scrape the heights hardly at all. You just float through each phrase.

Not being particularly religious, I don't care much about Ordo's liturgical narrative -- a story in which a bunch of allegorical Virtues, dwelling within the City of God, help a penitent Soul (yours truly) to resist temptation and find salvation. Yet even at this early stage of getting to know the work, I find the music utterly intoxicating. And even though at some level, I feel like I could be singing about green eggs and ham, there's something deeply moving about the sentiment behind some of Hildegard's lyrics. The opening solo for The Soul is particularly gorgeous:

O sweet Divinity,
and O delightful life,
in which I shall wear the brightest of garments,
receiving that
which I lost in my first appearance, to you I sigh,
and invoke all Virtues.

San Francisco Renaissance Voices will present Ordo Virtutum in August over five performances. It'll be an challenging and doubtless very satisfying process bringing this gorgeous work to life.
April 16, 2008 10:14 PM | | Comments (0)
As the home of Incredibly Strange Wrestling and the Faux Drag Queen Pageant, San Francisco is a natural breeding ground for the estoric genre of Grand Guignol theatre. Thrillpeddlers, the city's very own permanant company devoted to recreating the works of the now long-defunct Parisian Grand Guignol theatre (and its much shorter-lived sister, the London Grand Guignol theatre) as well as staging new, original plays written in the Grand Guignol style, should become a regular stop on the San Francisco trail for locals and visitors looking to sample something of the city's more lurid side.

Located under a flyover in the concrete jungle of San Francisco's seedy/arts South of Market district, Thrillpeddlers' performance space, The Hypnodrome, is a wonder in and of itself. The paint-spattered backdrops look like something vomitted from the intenstines of a wolverine. A custom-built replica of a guillotine (recreated from plans found on the Internet of Swedish origins) lurks in a corner -- and usually finds its way onto the stage at one point or another during an evening's entertainment. An old automatic player piano covers up the sound of traffic driving by outside. The auditorium is snug enough to enable stage blood to hit you if you're sitting in the front row. The back of the seating area is occupied by a row of eccentrically-decorated private nooks called "Shock Boxes" in which couples can have a little privacy should they desire it. The end of each show is marked by a complete shutting off of all the lights in the house. Audiences hold on to their drinks and shriek with fear and/or delight as florescent skeletons, ghouls and other creatures of the night dance around and mercilessly taunt innocent bystanders. If you're sitting in a Shock Box, prepare for a shock.

Though the melodramatic plots of the Grand Guignol genre are often condemned for seeming predictable, a night at Thrillpeddlers is usually anything but run of the mill. Even when the work makes you want to dig yourself an early grave (as was the case with the company's fabulously terrible production of Titus Andronicus a couple of years ago) the schlocktastic antics still manage to hit you with the unexpected. One emerges from a Thrillpeddlers show with the feeling that it isn't what happens on stage that matters -- but rather how the company hurtles towards each blood-splattered climax.

And I should point out that it's not all about guts and gore. A night of Grand Guignol theatre is based around giving the audience a range of radically contrasting experiences. In a typical program, gory dramas are mixed with side-splitting comedies. The idea is to create an emotional ping-pong effect in the viewer as we move from rolling in the aisles to feeling the hairs stand up on the back of our necks. Thrillpeddlers certainly achieves this effect with its latest production: Flaming Sin: London's Grand Guignol. A witty, louche one-act written for the London Grand Guignol in 1922 by Noel Coward, "The Better Half" (receiving its American premiere by Thrillpeddlers) is followed by "The Old Women", an over-the-top horror play set in a lunatic asylum adapted by Christopher Holland from the French Grand Guignol drama "A Crime in the Madhouse" by Andre de Lorde and Alfred Binet. Then, the show moves into a fast-paced revue featuring a variety of underground sideshows, from a play set in a department store and revolving around the aforementioned guillotine to a burlesque song entitled "Oom Pah Pah" raucously sung in a crimson gown and lavishly-curled wig by one of the most beautiful and graceful drag queens I've ever seen. The evening ends with a screening of Thrillpeddlers' 20-minute documentary about the Grand Guignol stage, which you don't have to go to The Hypnodrome to see: It's a "special feature" on the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Sweeney Todd DVD.

By the time I staggered out of The Hypnodrome at around 11.30 the other night, I felt emotionally exhausted and spiritually uplifted. It was one of the stranger evenings I've spent at the theatre. I don't think I'll forget it in a hurry. As Richard Hand and Michael Wilson, the authors of a recently published book entitled London's Grand Guignol put it, "Grand Guignol is, in any case, essentially a form that embodies a mass of contradictions. It is comic and horrific, progressive and reactionary, realist and sensationalist, erotic and even pornographic. It is all these things and more besides."
April 15, 2008 6:28 PM | | Comments (0)
The last time I caught a screening of a San Francisco Opera production, I wasn't very impressed. I was present at the company's inaugural simulcast screening of Madama Butterfly a couple of years ago. It was a festive, atmospheric affair to be sure: While audiences watched the show from inside the War Memorial Opera House, 8,000 others gathered on a big, grassy plaza across the street to watch a live broadcast of the opera for free. Pretty red lanterns and a festival spirit complete with wine and picnics made for an enjoyable evening.

But the screening itself left much to be desired. Crudely edited and packed with unflattering close-ups of the leading lady's triple chins, the film made suspending one's disbelief a real challenge.

I'm happy to report that the company's forays into screening operas have come a long way since then. This morning, I went to San Francisco's historic Castro movie theatre to catch a screening of Mozart's Don Giovanni. A departure from delivering simulcasts in tandem with live performances, the company recently launched a series of screenings of previously-recorded performances. This method of making the experience of going to the opera available to many more people is, in my opinion, much more satisfying than watching a simulcast. Thanks to careful, creative editing, good quality sound, and high definition images, Mozart's opera sprang to life on screen.

I was particularly impressed with the sensitivity of the performances witnessed at such close range. The Commendatore (Kristinn Sigmundsson) looked like he was in agony when he was dying; Twyla Robinson's Donna Elvira sassed as much as she seethed; As Don G, Mariusz Kwiecien didn't overdo the lothario act.

Another thing I loved about SF Opera's collaboration with film production company, The Bigger Picture, is the way in which the cameras allow us to see into the orchestra pit during the overture. It was such fun to see conductor Donald Runnicles at close range in his purple waistcoat, waving his arms and mane of white hair infront of a wobbling music stand. It was equally thrilling to get such a birds-eye view of all the instrumentalists at work too. Audience members are never privy to these kinds of details while sitting in the opera house.

Finally, it was interesting to see how the cinema audience reacted to the film. Mostly made up of elderly people and a few school groups, the audience behaved somewhat differently to the on-screen audience that could be heard responding to the live show beyond the edges of the camera lens. The sounds of wild applause heard on screen after the big arias were not matched in the cinema today. Yet while clapping seemed to be off-limits, people in the movie theatre still laughed heartily at the opera's many humorous moments.

Other operas screened so far in the series include Puccini's La Rondine, and Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah. Next up, funnily enough, is ye olde Madama Butterfly on April 21. I might have to go along just to see if this production fares better in edited mode rather than witnessed via simulcast.
April 14, 2008 7:02 PM | | Comments (0)
It was a cashier at Trader Joe's by the name of Cuba who introduced me to the MTV series America's Next Best Dance Crew while ringing up my groceries. We'd somehow gotten into a conversation about baseball and then sports in general during which I admitted that I didn't really watch many games. When Cuba asked me what sports I followed, I sheepishly responded that I loved dance, even though many people don't consider it a sport. Cuba said: "Sure dance is a sport." "It's very athletic at any rate," I shrugged, ready to leave.

But Cuba wasn't ready to move on to the next customer. He proceeded to tell me about America's Next Best Dance Crew, a recently-finished series on MTV in which hip-hop dance groups from all over the country compete for glory and a $100,000 grand prize. Viewers call in and vote for their favorite crew each week until all but one of the crews are eliminated and a winner is declared.

For many minutes after he'd finished totting up my grocery bill (apparently oblivious to the line of shoppers forming behind me) Cuba talked in animated terms about the show -- the dancers' passion and cool costumes; the fact that one group danced in masks while another performed their routines in roller-skates; the real-life stories behind the crews' rise to fame via MTV. His enthusiasm was infectious.

When I told Cuba I was bummed that I missed the series (I don't own a TV and am usually busy in the evenings going to review live theatre productions or making music) he immediately grabbed the till receipt out of my hands and scrawled an MTV URL and the show's title on the back of it. "You can watch the entire series online," he said before waving to the next customer and sending me on my way.

When I got home, I did as I was told. Even on a 12" laptop screen, America's Next Best Dance Crew made for engrossing viewing. I'm so glad that the Internet makes seeing these programs possible long after they've been recorded -- and the bonus of watching the shows on the Web is that all the episodes are blissfully ad-free.

I was particularly taken with the originality of the choreography and the visceral power of the performances. Many of the steps were intricate, involving complex footwork, the isolation of numerous different body parts and precise coordination between all dancers. Though the style was recognizably hip-hop and incorporated a lot of moves from breakdancing, every now and again, I would catch some moves that surprised me. Some steps, for instance, seemed like they were ripped from the unlikely traditions of Cossack and Morris dancing. At one point, dancers squatted on their haunches and sprang up to their feet repeately like Russian folk dancers; at another, they skipped and flicked their wrists like members of a Morris group from rural England. It was boundary-pushing stuff and the on-screen audience went wild every time one of the groups tried something unusual.

What was also interesting was the way that the presenter constantly used the language of war to talk about the crews. He referred to them "battling" it out and "fighting" their way to the top. Yet at the same time, the dancers themselves and the judges were constantly undermining the "street fighter" spirit of the event by talking about the "brotherhood" and "sisterhood" that existed between the groups. It was also significant that in the final episode, all the crews (including those eliminated early on in the series) returned to perform duets or trios with troupes which they had previously competed against. Upon final analysis, the series appeared to be less about competition and war and more about teamwork and synchronicity.

A staggering 38 million viewers called in to vote in the final week, in which a crew of young Asian men from San Diego who called themselves JabbaWockeeZ and danced in gloves and masks, faced-off against Status Quo, a crew of equally youthful-looking black guys from Boston who danced in loose baseball-style jackets and jeans. JabbaWockeez won and everyone danced and cheered until the final credits rolled. It was a pretty emotional finale.

If America's Next Best Dance Crew is anything to go by, this country need not fear for the future of dance. The art form is alive and well, and thriving all over the country. I can't wait until the second series which kicks off in the summer. Who knew that a trip to Trader Joe's could yield such fruit?
April 13, 2008 3:13 PM | | Comments (0)
As predicted, I had no luck trying to buy Radiohead tickets via Ticketmaster at 10am this morning. The site had nothing available at all even right at 10am on the nose.

I'm not normally given to venting conspiracy theories, but I can't help thinking that there's some kind of underhand business at work in the box office world for these kind of events. I mean, people were auctioning tickets on eBay for the concert at 9.45am and a few other ticket sites were hawking seats right in the back for $500 apiece.

I'm beginning to doubt whether it's actually possible to buy a ticket at a standard price through the conventional channels at all.

Ah well, I guess I'll have to live vicariously through the write-ups that the concert gets or think about crashing the event somehow (which will be tantamount in terms of impossiblity to breaking into the White House I suppose.) Nothing, however, will induce me to fork out $500 for a ticket to see the band. I'm a fan, but I'm not that much of a fan. And I don't have a trust fund.
April 12, 2008 8:33 PM | | Comments (2)
We thought we were being clever, opting to see the band in concert in the aging, conservative town of Santa Barbara rather than trying to catch them in San Francisco. We believed we would be at an advantage, living in California, in terms of getting our hands on tickets through a British website, given the time difference. Little did we know.

Radiohead's website announced that tickets for the rock band's appearance in Santa Barbara on August 28 would be going on sale through the British website waste on April 9. With the U.K. being eight hours ahead of The Bay Area, we all thought we stood a pretty good chance of getting tickets once the clock switched from midnight on April 8 to 00:01 on April 9 in Britain -- which meant the middle of the previous afternoon for us.

Of course, hitting the "refresh" button on our Internet browsers all afternoon didn't yield results. The site remained closed to ticket buyers until around 9am UK time on April 9. But even those of us standing by at our computers at 1am had no luck. Within about 30 seconds, all the tickets available for purchase through waste had been snapped up. Not one person I know in the Bay Area managed to succeed in buying tickets online that night. We all went to bed dissatisfied.

What does a person need to do to get tickets to this concert? Is it even possible? I wonder if rock critics in California are having similar trouble? Seems like you need to be related to one of the band members to get in. Or have the resources to bribe someone. I expect it's easier trying to get an appointment with the Queen of England. 

More tickets go on sale via Ticketmaster tomorrow morning. The venue, Santa Barbara Bowl, has put out a stern warning prohibiting fans from lining up at the box office at midnight tonight: "No lining up before midnight on the night prior to the "on sale" date," the website announces. "All "on sale" lines at the Santa Barbara Bowl Box Office are subject to a wristband lottery. There is a 2 ticket limit per person." Interestingly enough, no other concert listing on the venue's website features a message like this. I guess Avril Lavigne, The Cure and The Gypsy Kings don't bring out the same level of obsession in their fans.

Of course, my friends and I will be hitting the refresh key on our Internet browsers all night tonight once again -- even though tickets don't even go on sale until 10am tomorrow. Rock fans do the strangest things.
April 11, 2008 9:34 AM | | Comments (2)
I didn't pay much attention to the broohaha surrounding the climaxing relationship between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-supermodel / singer-songwriter Carla Bruni even though I was in the UK when France's first couple swung by for an official visit in March. The controversy on the eve of the visit concerning the publication by Christies auction house of a nude photograph of Bruni taken during her career as a supermodel and the media's special interest in Bruni's wardrobe (Christian Dior -- a diplomatic choice, being a French design house designed by John Galliano, a British designer) seemed laughable to me.

But having been introduced to Bruni's music by -- of all people -- my mother, who's a fan and played several of the singer-songwriter's tracks for me while I was home visiting, I've now become completely obsessed with the Italian-born bombshell-maestro.

Bruni's debut CD from 2002, Quelqu'un m'a dit, is one of the loveliest collections of musical musings I've heard in a long time. In many ways, Bruni follows directly in the footsteps of French singer-songwriters that have passed before her, including Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel in the sense that what she puts out into the world is deceptively simple: almost comical little tunes accompanied by little else than a strummed guitar.

But the surface texture of Bruni's songs belies an inner depth and complexity. It's the combination of Bruni's sexy-philosophical lyrics and smoky-throated voice that haunt the listener in particular. My favorite track from the album is the title song. There are about three chords in the thing and Bruni's voice cracks winningly every time she attempts to hit a note above a middle G. But the words, shrugging with a nonchalant sweetness in the face of one's pathetic "little life," are utterly infectious. You don't know if she's being jokey or sincere. Whatever she's being, the music drips sensuality and I just can't get enough.

Here's a link to Bruni's website. Both Quelqu'un m'a dit and her 2007 follow-up album, No Promises, are available in the U.S. via iTunes.
April 9, 2008 9:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Being a passionate devotee of Slings & Arrows, the brilliantly written and incandescently acted Canadian TV series about the inner workings of a big regional theatre company, I was excited to stumble across an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle about a new video podcast series. The series concerns a group of young theatremakers as they journey towards putting on a black-box stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Double in San Francisco.

A collaboration between podcaster Bill Bowles, playwright Eric Henry Sanders, and a coterie of hipsterish 20-something Bay Area thespians, Meet The Play Group is described in the paper as "a refreshing new series that will appear to fans of The Office and Waiting for Guffman."

Obviously, I'm delighted to see the San Francisco theatre scene depicted on screen -- and made fun off in a loving way too. I'm hoping that the series' three-minute videocasts, which air three times a week on the Internet, gather steam as the story moves along. But the few episodes I've caught so far don't give me a great deal of confidence that the project will take off. The scrappy, hand-held camera work and improvisatory acting style are meant to convey a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic. But after a while, the slipshod shots of peoples' feet and scenes depicting actors complaining in whiny voices and primping self-consciously in front of the camera get a bit wearing.

I'm all for exploring new ways to put the Bay Area performing arts scene on the map, but I don't particularly want the region transformed into a theatrical flyover zone. Still, maybe the series will improve as it goes along.

Episodes of
Meet The Play Group can be found at
April 8, 2008 5:42 PM | | Comments (0)
On Sunday, I attended an awards ceremony and party in honor of Dan Hoyle. A team of five local theatre critics (Rob Hurwitt of The San Francisco Chronicle, Karen D'Souza of The San Jose Mercury News, Chad Jones formerly of the Oakland Tribune, Rob Avila of The San Francisco Bay Guardian and yours truly) selected Hoyle as this year's recipient of The Glickman Award for Best New Play. Every year, The Glickman Award (named in memory of play- and screenwriter Will Glickman) honors any new play to have received its world premiere in the Bay Area. Hoyle won the $4000 prize this time around for his stunning one-man show about Nigerian oil politics, Tings Dey Happen. The show is enjoying a revival in San Francisco at The Marsh Theatre following five acclaimed months Off-Broadway in New York.

For the review I wrote about Hoyle's play last year in SF Weekly, click here.

Though I love being part of The Glickman Award panel -- both for the opportunity the position provides to bestow recognition upon a very deserving playwright each year, and for the delicious disagreements that my colleagues and I invariably get into over dinner when we discuss potential candidates for the award every January -- attending the prize-giving ceremony is always slightly traumatizing: They make the theatre critics give speeches.

No matter how much wine I drink, I always feel a bit nervous about throwing in my two-cents worth about why I love the winning show in public. Yesterday was no different. I sweated and shifted around in my high heels willing myself to say something intelligent. Unfortunately only burbling noises came forth. To make matters worse, I was the fifth speaker out of five, which meant that pretty much everything had been said already. So I made a joke based on something that Hoyle had said in an interview about Nigeria being like a party where the dog's eaten the cake and all the lights are out and there's a hole in the floor or somesuch nonsense and ploughed on through with my eyes glued to the rug, ending with some juvenile comment about being "awestruck" by the dramatist's prowess. It was an unpleasant few minutes. But I got through it without throwing up, so for that I should at least be grateful.

The ridiculous thing is that my stage-fright is completely unfounded. No one comes to the Glickman Awards ceremony to listen to a bunch of critics rambling on. They come to rub shoulders with the winning playwright and his or her collaborators and drink good wine. Yet for some reason, knowing this doesn't help. At least Hoyle quickly took the attention away from my muttering effort by performing a scene from his play. In a touching moment just before he started the scene, the performer had to hold back tears. His mother, who was sitting watching her son, actually shed a few. The catharsis was welcome after all the excitement.
April 7, 2008 7:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Whenever the topic of theatre and politics comes up in conversation, people tend to shuffle uncomfortably, snort disdainfully or cross their eyes. Mentioning the the two subjects in one sentence tends to illicit negative or nervous responses, even though many people working in the performing arts -- and outside of them -- believe that all art is political and that theatre, because of its reliance on metaphor and allegory and ability to fly under the radar, is the most political of all art forms. You only have to read Charles Isherwood's recent article in The New York Times about two political plays in New York -- Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and David Mamet's November --  to see how unpalatable the politics/theatre mixture can get. "That both playwrights should come to grief with works of topical concern is not so unexpected," writes Isherwood. "Politics and playwriting have rarely been a profitable match, particularly when reasonably current affairs are the subject. In the electronic-media age, the partnership is even more strained."

Throwing caution to the wind, a small group of theatre people from the Bay Area met for pizza and cupcakes to discuss the yukky subject of politics and theatre in Oakland last night.

The meeting was part of the series of ongoing "theatre salons" that myself and five other Bay Area theatre people launched around a year ago. The aim of the salons is to get people within the theatre community engaging in discussions about the performing arts with a view to raising the quality of dialogue and inspiring an exchange of information between disparate corners of the community. This might include getting big companies talking to small companies, critics talking to stage managers and choreographers talking to producers for example.

The six of us had been bandying the theme of theatre and politics around via email discussions for many months before assembling a small group of 12 guests for last night's get together. The format was atypical. Unlike previous salons, which are held on a much bigger scale with around 40 guests, tons of booze and a party atmosphere, this meeting focused on engaging people in a more intimate setting with a more focused discussion.

The change proved pretty fruitful. People diverged on several issues, such as whether all theatre is political by definition or whether a production needs to proclaim itself as a work of political theatre in order to be political, and whether the theatre needs more right-wing plays or just better left-wing ones.

For me, the most interesting part of the discussion delved into notions of theatre's validity as a vehicle for galvanizing social change. Salon guests disagreed about the extent to which art can make people think and possibly change their beliefs. But most agreed that policy-making / policy-changing is beyond the capabilities of most works of art when viewed in isolation. That said, when we looked more closely at the matter, it seems that if many works of arts in multiple media galvanize around an idea, it can gather force until it spreads into public discourse. Conversations start happening as a result of all the ideas spawned by art, and a context for potential political change starts to take shape. But no work of art can achieve political change in isolation. A sweeping movement is what's needed. In other words, Angels in America may be the most famous "AIDS play" to have come out of the 1980s and it arguably tapped into the public consience and helped to bring attention to the disease and breakdown stigmas associated with it. But Angels didn't achieve this on its own. Hundreds of other since-forgotten dramas all played a role in creating the context for the sea-change -- not to mention the many magazine and newspaper articles, novels, non-fiction books, films, and dance pieces etc. which followed suit.

The soiree showed me two things. One, that the smaller, dinner-table format is in many ways more successful for engendering serious discussion about culture than the bigger salon format. Two, that theatre and politics isn't an irksome subject. We barely scratched the surface, but the dialogue went in fascinating directions, offering me new insights into how I approach the world around me. I think we'll do it again. 
April 7, 2008 11:36 AM | | Comments (0)
The Theatre Communications Group (the body that oversees non-profit theatre in the U.S.) has launched a three-minute theatre video competition as part of the run-up to its 2008 National Conference to be held in Denver in June.

Contestants were asked to make a three-minute video about their theatre companies, including some thoughts about "their vision for theatre in the future."

Browsers to the TCG website can view all eight submissions and then vote for their favorite. The winner(s) will receive the equivalent of two complimentary registrations to the TCG National Conference and the top videos will be screened at the conference.

I'm not sure what the rationale behind this competition is. I'm not sure the theatre community understands it either, otherwise TCG would have received more than just eight submissions. However, It's interesting to see the range of styles and approaches even within such a small group of offerings:

7 Stages in Atlanta's slick, sober effort looks and sounds like an infomercial on the theme of why theatre will change the planet. With the sound down, it could be a video for some environmental or education non-profit.

The Magic Theatre in San Francisco takes a completely opposing tack. Two hip young company members make jokey riffs about theatre while basking in the sunshine with a view of the sparkling Bay and Golden Gate Bridge in the background. The video looks like an MTV short with its rock music soundtrack and pithy soundbytes.

Actors Shakespeare Project of Boston's video comes across as an earnest "artists at work"-type profile for public television. A narrator describes the company's process and approach. Images depict rehearsals. The emphasis is definitely on showing "how a play is made."

A more tongue-in-cheek and intriguing entry comes from The LARK Play Development Center in New York, which manages to combine insights about what the center does from such dramatists as Arthur Kopit and David Henry Hwang and a cheeky look into how the playwrights of the future need to forge ahead with their own creativity rather than rely on churning out plays according to a formula.

Other entries include: Brava Center for the Arts, San Francisco Imagination Stage, Bethesda Kitchen Theatre Company and Ithaca Youth Ensemble of Atlanta

What's clear from the range of approaches to the subject is that the creators don't quite know to whom they are pitching themselves. Creating a video about one's theatre company for the sheer delight of it is a fun and I'm sure worthwhile exercise, but in what way does it really aid a company's cause or the theatre's cause in general? And if the videos are only meant to be seen by a bunch of theatre insiders at the TCG conference, then is there much point in the dudes from the Magic Theatre telling this audience to "get out and see a play!"?

Video can serve a variety of useful purposes in the theatre world for such things as recording rehearsals for the production team's benefit and creating trailers for shows to use as tools to whet audiences' appetites and sell tickets. In this case, though, the purpose seems less clear.
April 4, 2008 9:58 AM | | Comments (0)
The brilliant San Francisco-baed comic book creator, Jon Adams, has been publishing tales about the quotidian lives of superheroes since 2000. Having garnered two Eisner nominations for his books (the comic book industry equivalent of the Oscars), a rocketing fan-base and appearances in publications like McSweeneys, Adams has now launched his Truth Serum comic strip as a weekly series online.

Adams' superheroes aren't like regular defenders of the universe. They may wear capes and masks, but you're more likely to find them hanging about on street corners discussing girls or darning holes in their hose than dashing off to do heroic deeds. The down-to-earth humor of Adams' superhero-next-door scenarios coupled with the delicate intricacy and precision of his drawings makes Truth Serum an utterly captivating read.

Adams now seems to be reaching a mainstream audience. Check out this article about Truth Serum in the Wall Street Journal.
April 3, 2008 7:50 AM | | Comments (0)
A couple of years ago, while attending the NEA/Columbia Arts Journalism and Opera Institute in New York, a professor from NYU gave a lecture about how we listen to music. The lecture was mind-expanding though infuriating. The session basically consisted of the guy asking the same question -- "how do you listen to music?" -- over and over again. No one, including him, was able to answer the  question in a satisfactory way. "With our ears?" was about as close as anyone got, to which the professor replied, "yes, but how?"

My own pretentious attempt to respond to the question -- something to do with hearing sound in terms of layers of melody and rhythm -- was deservedly scoffed at and instantly dismissed.

I've given the question thought on and off since then, without making much progress. But while watching Thomas Riedelsheimer's 2004 documentary about the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, Touch the Sound, a couple of days ago, I realized that maybe Glennie might be in a better position to answer the question than many other people.

As a profoundly deaf musician, Glennie often encounters the question, "how can you hear music if you're deaf?" Glennie sees this line of thinking as an affront. In the documentary, she's adamant that she hears music -- with her entire body. What if we all hear music with our entire bodies and not just our ears? Perhaps ears are only part of the equation.

This thought lept out at me as I watched Touch the Sound, a film which in most other respects doesn't provide any particularly interesting insights into the nature of sound or Glennie's life and work. Riedelsheimer's previous documentary -- Rivers & Tides -- about the envrironmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, was much more intriguing. The documentarian's languorous, intuitive approach works much better I think for capturing the life of a visual artist than it does a musician. I found myself getting impatient with Touch the Sound. Romantic, endlessly lingering shots of Glennie thwacking a snare drum in the middle of a train station or burbling on a vibraphone in a disused warehouse reminded me of an 80s pop video. Rather than connecting me with her sound, the documentary estranged me from it.

Follow up:

Thanks to Jonathan Mayes of The Barbican Centre in London for forwarding a link to  a fascinating essay on Glennie's website about how the percussionist hears music. From the essay:

A common and ill informed question from interviewers is 'How can you be a musician when you can't hear what you are doing?' The answer is of course that I couldn't be a musician if I were not able to hear. Another often asked question is 'How do you hear what you are playing?' The logical answer to this is; how does anyone hear?. An electrical signal is generated in the ear and various bits of other information from our other senses all get sent to the brain which then processes the data to create a sound picture. The various processes involved in hearing a sound are very complex but we all do it subconsciously so we group all these processes together and call it simply listening. The same is true for me. Some of the processes or original information may be different but to hear sound all I do is to listen. I have no more idea of how I hear than you do.
April 2, 2008 9:40 AM | | Comments (2)

Me Elsewhere


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by lies like truth in April 2008.

lies like truth: March 2008 is the previous archive.

lies like truth: May 2008 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.