lies like truth: August 2008 Archives

Over the past few Augusts, I've been lamenting the fact that I'm not in Edinburgh, soaking up the Festival. For several years in the early 2000s, I went every year and hurtled around for the month writing reviews and features for a variety of media organizations from The Economist and The Scotsman to the BBC and The San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Today, though, I'm not feeling quite so bad about being on the other side of the world. A friend of mine (and former Edinburgh Festival employee) who lives in the city sent me a hilarious email this afternoon lamenting the money she's wasted this summer catching bum shows at the Edinburgh International Festival. With her permission, I thought I'd share her experiences with you:

"Oh boy - how much tripe can one girl take?" Her email begins. "The one good thing we saw was the dance company Rosas doing a night to some live performance of Steve Reich's music. Apart from the dodgy eighties' number with the synthesizers and maracas, which did eventually do my head in, it was really exciting stuff."

"The rest was just bollocks."

"We saw the world premiere of Heiner Goebbels' new show with the Hilliard Ensemble on Thursday - and I fell asleep only to wake and raise an eyebrow just at the moment when one of the singers intoned "I was asleep, I wish I were dead" (or something similar) and K [my friend's partner] got the giggles bad. Think we may have disgraced ourselves. We left in the interval. A turgid, over-studied murdering of TS Eliot."

"We saw a Polish company do a version of [Sarah Kane's} 4:48 Psychosis - in Polish. Alright, but it would have been better if they'd trusted the words and not tried quite so hard to embody it all quite so dramatically."

"Then there was a night of Sufi dancing, which was just weird. Mostly because despite being in the international festival dance programme there was almost no dancing and what dancing there was, was pants. Also, left us both feeling entirely icky we felt like some dreadful post-colonial, white supremacist voyeurs peeking at a real religious rite because it was 'exotic'. Very peculiar programming."

"Then last night, after all that, we had all our hopes pinned on Matthew Bourne's new production of Dorian Gray. Oh lordy. It was just so tired and obvious and, well, nasty. So we left in the interval and came home to watch another episode of [the TV series] So You Think You Can Dance (much better dancing and we have become hooked since our Canadian friend Jen introduced it to us a few weeks ago)."

"Am trying to think of the festival as interestingly anthropological to stop me feeling quite so hacked off and imagining everything else we could have done with the ticket money."

Ah well. Next year, I suspect my friend may rent out her apartment and vanish to the Highlands for the month. She won't be the first Edinburgh resident to do the same come festival time.
August 31, 2008 6:07 PM | | Comments (1)
Every now and again, a director, producer or cast member of a theatre production which I am reviewing will accost me as I'm exiting the theatre after seeing the show to ask me what I thought of it. This is a tricky situation. Even if I enjoyed myself immensely, it's hard to formulate a response instantly. And if I didn't have a great time, it's even harder to say it straight out to someone who's been working so hard to get the show up and running.

I suppose the easiest way to nip the issue in the bud is to use the stock answer: "You can read all about it when my review comes out next week." But this somehow seems a bit smug. Also, frankly, I never remember to use it when I'm caught on the spot.

The other day, a director not only asked me what I thought of the show as I was making my exit, but also added -- when he didn't quite catch my noncommittal answer to his question -- "Oh good, it'll be great to get a plug this late in the run." Sheesh.
August 28, 2008 7:53 AM | | Comments (3)
Most reporters save the hard questions for the end of an interview. The reason for doing so is simple: It's much easier to get an interview subject to open up to an interviewer on a touchy, difficult or otherwise challenging subject once you've gotten to know them a bit and they feel slightly warm towards you, than if you blurt out a question that might potentially cause offense right at the start. If you get off on the wrong foot at the beginning of an interview, you may cause the subject to clam up entirely and be forced to chat about the weather or exchange gardening tips for the remainder of the session.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the new artistic director of a theatre company for a profile story. The conversation went pretty well. The director, whom I shall call Gina, was friendly and helpful and gave me lots of interesting information about herself.

I didn't think I had anything potentially difficult to ask her, so I felt relaxed throughout. But right at the end of the interview when the topic of Gina's age came up -- a routine journalist's question, or so I've always thought -- I suddenly felt like I'd asked the director to admit to an adulterous affair or reveal secrets about her mother's boudoir.

"Why do reporters always ask women that question?" Gina asked me in a ticked-off voice. "They never ask men." I told her that this was simply not true: Asking the age of an interview subject is a normal thing. Reporters -- at least the good ones -- don't discriminate between the sexes. And yet Gina was not happy. She kept going on about how much she hates to state her age and couldn't understand why readers would possibly interested in knowing such a detail.

Gina isn't the first person I've heard complain about being asked their age in an interview, though most people are pretty good-natured about it and generally give you the information after being momentarily coy.

But Gina is definitely the first person I've come across who gave the following as a reason for not wanting to reveal her date of birth: "I don't think it would be so easy to get funding if people knew my age," Gina said. "Funders generally prefer giving money to younger people." I find this incredibly hard to believe. And if it were true, I doubt very much that Gina has ever run into this problem herself: the woman looks about 15 years younger than she actually is. (Though she didn't want me to print her age in my story, I found it out from another source.)

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who feels that they've been discriminated against as an artist by funders as a result of them knowing their age. Similarly, feel free to share your views and stories about the issues inherent in revealing one's age to the media as an artist.
August 27, 2008 11:09 AM | | Comments (1)
I've seen a lot of films inspired by Shakespeare's plays in my time, but I've never seen one quite like Never Say Macbeth.

This new feature length comedy written by Joe Tyler Gold, directed by C. J Prouty and produced by Tammy Caplan, has as its teaser: "The curse of Macbeth ... It brings fire! Death! Boring first dates!"

The premise for the film is a fun one: A nerdy Midwestern high school science teacher travels to Los Angeles to attempt to win back his ex-girlfriend who's fled the relationship and her life as a drama teacher with dreams of becoming an actress. When the science teacher improbably finds himself cast as a witch in the same production of the Scottish Play in which his ex is playing Lady M, he mistakenly says the cursed M-word in front of the assembled cast. Disaster ensues.

Although the script is fluffy and full of tired thespian clichés from the crazy, bearded egomaniacal director to the campy gay acting couple, Never Say Macbeth has its heart in the right place. There's something particularly lively about the scene in which ghosts from the theatre's distant past all perform shows from a repertory season long ago - at one point, a trio of craggy witches from a1950s production of Macbeth find themselves improbably sharing the stage with characters from equally musty stagings of The Pirates of Penzance and The Importance of Being Earnest.

The film would probably appeal most strongly to a high school audience of students interested in becoming drama majors at college. There's a cute love story at its center and some cartoonish special effects. The lead actor reminds me of The Office and 40-Year-Old Virgin star, Steve Carell.

But I personally found myself wishing that the movie could have been cleverer and more artfully created. From the grainy, lo-fi quality of the cinematography and the overly hammy performances to the hackneyed premise and cheesy jokes, Never Say Macbeth comes across as a bit amateurish. It's sort of like a Summerstock theatre production on screen.
August 26, 2008 7:55 AM | | Comments (0)
I've been careful to avoid Golden Gate Park in San Francisco this weekend. A big part of me wanted to hear Radiohead perform at the first ever Outside Lands Festival in the park. But I've never been one for crowds and the thought of spending a minimum of $85 on a ticket and standing in the fog for hours with 160,000 people was a bit of a turnoff.

Instead, I spent Sunday wandering around the East Bay, where the comparatively miniscule, vastly more esoteric and largely free Downtown Berkeley MusicFest was taking place all weekend, also in its inaugural year.

It was a delightful, quintessentially Berkeley day, characterized by sunshine, organic mango lassis and a melee of unkempt beards, tie-dyed muumuus and patchouli. Over the space of a few hours, I heard four different acts. Sat on the patio at Jupiter's brewery listening to the laid-back blues riffs of slide guitarist Pete Madsen (pictured left). The musician was playing with a slide made from a wine bottle by one of his students. Madsen jokes about the slide being a little too upscale for the kind of music he played: It was culled from a bottle of Napa Valley Pinot rather than some homespun moonshine. His music was perfect for a hot day. It span in my head and made me think of parched hills and dusty country roads.

At a hole-in-the-wall venue on University Avenue, the OneWorldWalk Center, I heard the early music quartet, The Galileo Project, performing works for Baroque fiddles, cello and harpsichord by such composers as Corelli and Matthew Locke. The audience was sitting literally inches away from the performers in the cramped performance space, which was really little more than a stairwell with a few seats stuck along the walls. It was thrilling to be so close to the players. I could read the first violinist's music along with him. I could see the way in which the harpsichordist bunched up her hands to play the complex ornaments in some of the passacaglias and chacones.

Back at Jupiter's, an acoustic Americana troupe consisting of fiddler, guitarist, mandolin, banjo and vocalist, performed some wild bluegrass music that alternately made me want to slug beer and get up and dance.

The only group I heard that I wasn't completely won over by was Ya Elah, a world-religion-inspired all-female vocal troupe. The ensemble's program of "Bulgarian Village Songs and Middle Eastern Melodies" was just way too nutty-crunchy-granola for me. I appreciated the interactive moments, where the singers had the audience join in on the chorus in one song and clap and yelp in another. I also loved harpist Diana Rowan's contribution on the Celtic harp. The songs in which the harp accompanied the vocalists were not only better in tune but also more richly textured. What bothered me most about the group's effort was the endless commentary that went along with the playing. I just wanted to hear the music. But instead they insisted on giving a lecture before each number about the message of each song, which invariably was to do with peace, love and happiness or how we're all part of the same great, divine, human race and that god is within each of us etc etc. By the time we got to the "Hari Krishna" song at the end of the program I was ready to scream. Still, Ya Elah's music seems to resonate quite strongly with the Berkeley crowd.

I loved the wide range of acts at the festival as well as the way in which audiences were encouraged to meander from venue to venue. In some ways, the event felt rather like a small fringe theatre festival. I'll most likely be coming back next year.
August 25, 2008 11:10 AM | | Comments (0)
The Di Rosa Preserve in Napa, California, came into being in the 1960s when art collector and journalist Rene di Rosa purchased and transformed 460 acres of dilapidated vineyard into a working vineyard, a home and space for fueling his passion for Northern Californian art. The Preserve, which I visited for the first time last week, houses approximately 2,200 works of art by more than 900 artists on 217 acres. The collection is extraordinary for its breadth and unorthodoxy.

The highlight for me on this first, all too brief trip, was Paul Kos' meditative installation Chartres Bleu. One of the major figures in the early Conceptual Art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kos was key to the development of video, performance and installation art in the Bay Area, focusing much of his attention on interactivity and novel uses of sound. Created in 1989 and currently housed in a specially-built "catacomb" underneath Rene Di Rosa's former home on the Preserve, the work consists of a stack of 27 video monitors that recreate one of the famed stained glass windows from Chartres Cathedral in France.

To get to the work, you enter through a set of heavy wooden doors from a sun-washed concrete patio outside the museum's main exhibition hall and walk down a dark, cool and narrow corridor fashioned from smooth concrete to look like part of a cloister in an old European church. The corridor opens into a similarly dank and ethereal chapel. The mood of profound calm is further heightened by the sound of steadily dripping water. There are simple seats on which to sit. After the heat and scurry of the Napa sun, Chartres Bleu suggests deep chill and icy stillness. Being in the work is probably a bit like being in a womb. This feeling of profound rest is peculiarly thrown into relief by Kos' reconstruction of the Chartres window itself. On the far wall when you enter the inner sanctum, the video screens, depicting the crystalline-blue stained glass window of the original in France, gaze steadily at us. The video projections supposedly cycle through the light as it passes through the windows at Chartres throughout the day. It's hard to look at the screens for too long though. As gorgeous as they are, there's something unnerving about the pixelated forms. They play tricks on our eyes. I had to keep blinking and looking away.

The work eloquently expresses for me the relationship between the restless, ADD-afflicted pace of modern life and the meditative long-view stance of former generations -- the people who spent years building churches and hours sitting thinking and worshipping within them.
br>Oh, and here's a bit of interesting trivia: The Preserve hosts many weddings, but the only person ever to have gotten married in the Chartres Bleu "chapel" itself is the artist.
August 23, 2008 1:56 PM | | Comments (0)
The burgeoning relationship between real-world art-making and its virtual-world counterpart is a constant source of fascination to me.

Another interesting development happened this week: A musician made cyber history when a record company offered him a contract based on concerts given in cyberspace.

Nashville bluesman Von Johin performs weekly gigs in Second Life, one of the leading virtual worlds. He plays each Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST at his own Second Life venue "in the Yudasin Sim," Johin's Blue Note Club, named after his real-life recording studio on the outskirts of Nashville. Two talent scouts from Reality Entertainment spent several months looking for promising artists to sign throughout Second Life before they settled on Johin. According to a story on Wired News, the record deal is believed to be the first ever given to a Second Life performer.

Reality Entertainment, also home to KC and the Sunshine Band, plans to release Von Johin's debut album digitally through such outlets as iTunes, Amazon, and Rhapsody. Johin's show can be watched via Second Life or here.

Johin's recording contract is just the latest in a long string of interactions between Second Life and the arts and entertainment world. Here are some other examples:

-Second Life recently appeared on the TV shows CSI: NY and The Office. CSI: NY offered viewers an extended, interactive experience, taking them on a journey from the TV screen to the virtual realm.

-Second Life has hosted in-world concerts by such acclaimed real-life performers as Regina Spektor, Suzanne Vega, Duran Duran and Jay-Z.

-The virtual world rock group, Virtual Live Band, brings together the musical talents of real-life performers from the US, Germany and UK for concerts in Second Life.

-Distributed via HBO subsidiary Cinemax, filmmaker Douglas Gayeton's Molotov Alva and His Search For The Creator is the first documentary shot entirely in a virtual online platform.

-Leading guitar manufacturer Gibson is just one arts-related company with space on Second Life. Guitar buffs go there to try out the latest gear, get music lessons and learn about guitar history.

-Sony/BMG recording artists such as Ben Folds and Michael Penn host events via Second Life.

-Rapper Chamillionaire and grunge band Hinder have conducted meet-and-greet sessions with fans within Second Life.

The lines between the real and virtual world are extremely porous at this point. It'll be interesting to see how the arts evolve in Second LIfe and other platforms like it.

In other news, I'll be taking a vacation next week. I'll be back in the blogosphere towards the end of the month.
August 14, 2008 12:10 PM | | Comments (0)
A theatre production I caught last week made extensive use of sprechgesang/sprechstimme (German for "spoken song" or "spoken voice") -- a vocal technique that hovers between speaking and singing.

The technique was popular in Expressionist musical compositions of the early 20th century. Arnold Schoenberg's use of sprechstimme in Pierrot Lunaire (1912) is one of the most mesmerizing and famous uses of the technique. Alban Berg also used it for his operas Wozzeck and Lulu.

But San Francisco playwright-performer Gary Aylesworth's The Ballad of Edgar Cayce (A Bluegrass Operetta) represents the first time I've ever seen the technique used live in a play.

In some ways, the approach works makes perfect sense for Aylesworth's subject matter and overall performance style. Concerning the life of the early 20th century clairvoyant and healer Edgar Cayce (1877-1945 - pictured left), the play is full of surreal and whimsical moments. It's like an Bretonian-Eluardian automatic writing experiment on stage. Also, the play is set during the era when sprechgesang was popular. The sprechstimme in the play creates a vivid metaphor for the state of the clairvoyant's unorthodox mind.

On the other hand, Aylesworth doesn't quite get the use of the technique right. Sprechgesang definitely heightens tension in the musical compositions I've heard the technique employed. It also creates an other-worldly quality. But Aylesworth overuses the technique. About half of the 90-minute play is delivered in a thumping sprechgesang accompanied by the tick-tock of an old-fashioned, wind-up metronome. By the time you've heard this for five minutes, it's like a jackhammer to the skull. Rather than illuminating Cayce's mental state for us, the sprechgesang makes us shut down and want to get away from the play's subject.

Sprechgesang is an interesting technique. It can be very effective on stage. But it should be used sparingly.
August 13, 2008 8:55 AM | | Comments (0)
Fringe season is upon us. But does anyone really know what "fringe" means anymore? A new article by the Daily Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen chafes at the idea that the meaning of the word has gotten completely lost.

Christiansen waxes lyrical about the "good old days" when the fringe was truly special:

"I first went there as a schoolboy some 40 years ago, when the programme consisted of a narrowly conceived menu of high culture - classical concerts, opera and ballet, serious drama - with a late-night cabaret or bonne bouche, plus a Fringe that consisted of some representatives of the European avant-garde presented by Richard Demarco (a buccaneering showman who outraged Morningside proprieties), and a smattering of students and amateurs mounting humble shows and innocuous skits in a few bleak church halls.Visiting the Festival was akin to a pilgrimage, matching the austere dignity of this beautiful city. There was only one shop of note (Jenner's), its windows decorated with photographs of celebrated conductors and prima donnas. Finding anything edible was a struggle, the licensing laws were draconian, and sex was what the coal came in. But it was still fabulously thrilling and liberating fun."

But I wonder if this view of Edinburgh's long-lost "fringe-iness" is too narrow? Like many other critics of the Edinburgh Fringe these days, Christiansen believes that the festival has lost its meaning largely because of commercial reasons. It's "a monster devouring its own children," according to Christiansen.

Yet surely the idea of fringe extends beyond such concerns as the high prices of accommodation during fringe season, overcrowding, escalating ticket costs etc. There are, for instance, important aesthetic issues at stake of which many commentators have lost sight. What makes a show a fringe show beyond the fact that it's produced on a shoe-string?

Well, for one thing, there's the venue. Fringe venues tend to be small. They're often converted into theatres for a fringe production from other uses. For another, there's content. Fringe productions focus on showcasing new scripts, provide unorthodox readings of classic plays (often truncated to fit into a shorter time frame) or work with otherwise experimental material. In addition, Fringe shows also seem to define themselves by the sizes (small) -- and typical ages (young) -- of their casts. Design and technical elements are often sparse, though I've seen some pretty elaborate Fringe shows in my time, so I'm hesitant to add this to the list of aesthetic issues that come into play when trying to pin down what Fringe theatre means.

I think, overall, what we must not forget in discussions about Fringe (or, for that matter, "off-off" and "off-off-off" Broadway) theatre is the spirit in which this kind of work should be created: one of rebellion. Many of the great original Fringe festivals that grew up in the latter half of the last century (eg Adelaide, Edinburgh) came about in retaliation against mainstream, juried arts festivals. Any fringe event which has lost this spirit of rebellion cannot be counted as a fringe festival in my opinion.

It's therefore tempting to see a monster like Edinburgh in this light. The fact that it's become so huge that it might (as Christiansen hopes) cause the Edinburgh's original arts bastion -- the International Festival -- to happen at another time of the year indicates that the fringe no longer exists on the margins as it once did, but right at the center. This image is, of course, decidedly anti-fringe.

Similarly, as events like Edinburgh become increasingly beholden to the laws of commerce, there's a possibility that the spirit of wild experimentation might be compromised as theatre makers may be concerned with focusing on recouping the high costs of being at the festival each year at the expense of creativity. But neither this theory, nor the common sense point I made above about the front-and-center (as opposed to marginal) position of the Edinburgh fringe can be taken at face value. Just because a fringe festival is, as Christiansen puts it, "raucous, filthy, drunken and commercialized," it doesn't mean that the renegade spark has disappeared altogether. There's as much -- perhaps even more -- danger to being in the eye of the storm as there is to being on the edges.
August 12, 2008 12:13 PM | | Comments (0)
Sometimes I wonder whether a theater critic's deep desire to find and champion great new dramas by hot emerging local dramatists leads him or her to overhype plays that don't deserve tumultuous praise.

This issue has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few days in light of a recent theater experience. On Thursday evening, I went to see Bone To Pick, a world premiere by San Francisco playwright Eugenie Chan. The play is currently being produced as part of a three-play soiree of experimental works by The Cutting Ball at the Exit Theatre, where the company is currently resident.

A modern retelling of the Ariadne myth, the drama pictures the Ancient Greek heroine as a homespun diner waitress left to eke out a lonely eternity in a desolate, war-torn nowhere-land by her callous soldier-lover Theo (aka Theseus.) The play has been superlatively reviewed in a number of local publications. It seems to have stood out as the clear favorite of all three items on the program (the other two being Gertrude Stein's bizarro 1922 three-hander about the affects of conflicts on families, Accents in Alsace, and Suzan-Lori Parks' 1987 family conflict comedy for two actors, Betting on the Dust Commander.) My colleague at SF Weekly, Molly Rhodes, wrote: "Bone grabs you and doesn't let go" in her review of the production for the paper last week. "Bone is richly rewarding right down to its marrow," wrote Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Robert Avila of the San Francisco Bay Guardian called the play, "a fresh and shrewd refiguring of the Ariadne myth."

On the strength of these reviews and my interest in seeing powerful world premieres as a member of the judging panel for the the Bay Area's annual Glickman Award, I went to see the show.

Somehow, I just can't see what my colleagues are getting so worked up about. I admit to being completely bewitched by Paige Rogers' tour de force performance as Ria. Rogers inhabits her character so completely that we don't know whether to feel more sorry for the dilapidated waitress with her self-deprecating attitude and caustic air of resignation or the state of the battered world at large. And Rogers manages to be incredibly funny too. I don't think I'll ever forget the image I have of the actress, standing there in her soiled Dairy Queen-esque outfit taking occasional swigs of rusty water from an old coffee pot.

But as for the play itself? Well, I didn't find it that grabbing to be honest, though there are some lyrical and witty moments. The language is a little too self-conscious and seemed derivative of such writers as Deb Margolin and The Beats. The scenes in which Ria re-imagines leading Theo into the Minotaur's labyrinth are long-winded and histrionic. I personally failed to get any new insights into the nature of war or America's increasingly tenuous position on the world stage. I wonder if the excited critical responses have more to do with the strength of Rogers' acting, the fact that the play compares favorably with the other two productions in the evening's lineup and Chan's status as a local up-and-comer, than the pure merit of the script itself?

What can I say except that it's been a slow year for great new plays in the Bay Area. I think I've seen only two in eight months that I would consider worthy of the Glickman Award and both of those were musicals.

Then again, I could always be wrong -- I am in a mino(tau)rity after all.
August 11, 2008 11:19 AM | | Comments (0)
I recently complained to a theater friend about a stage director that I've had the opportunity of observing at close range in recent months. I hesitate to call the guy a director, really. He spends entire rehearsals with his eyes stuck to the script and barely looks up to see what's going on on stage. His direction basically revolves around saying things to the cast like "just get into a clump" and, with reference to a video recording he showed the ensemble of another company's production of the same work, "do it like on the video."

In response to my observations, my friend had an even more ludicrous director anecdote of his own to recall concerning an actress friend of his:

The actress, whom I shall call W, was in a production of a John Guare play a while back. In a run-through of the play near the end of the rehearsal process, the director of the production -- let's call her M -- spent the entire first act furiously scribbling notes. Then, at some point during the second act, W looked into the stalls and noticed that M was slumped in her chair. The director had apparently fallen fast asleep.

No one, other than W, noticed what had happened, it seems. After the run-through was over, M, who had awoken at some point before the end, started going through her notes. She had plenty of things to say about the first act. When it came to the second act, M reported that she had no notes. W knew why this was of course, but the rest of the cast was elated: Even though they still had some work to do to hone the opening of the play, they were happy to have aced the middle. W, meanwhile, was too polite to point out the truth.

It was a refreshing anecdote. I guess the director I complained about at least deserves some praise for staying awake.

Short list of basic qualities for a director of theater productions:

1. He/She should stay awake throughout rehearsals including tech week and all run-throughs.
2. He/She should keep his eyes on the stage most if not all of the time.
3. He/She should actually direct the actors rather than giving vague advice based on third-party materials.
August 10, 2008 2:05 PM | | Comments (3)
Magic is an artform about which I know practically nothing. I've enjoyed reading about it in novels like Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil, watching movies about it such as The Illusionist and experiencing magic shows on stage or TV, such as those by Penn and Teller and David Blaine.

One of the most lively evenings I've ever spent in the company of a magician was when I caught San Francisco performer Christian Cagigal's solo magic show, The Pandora Experiment at The Exit Theatre a while ago. (The latest iteration of the show is currently running at The Exit right now through August 16, in fact.)

A few days ago, I read a curious piece in The Boston Globe (via the ArtsJournal website) about the growing relationship between the seemingly disparate worlds of neuroscience and magic. Reporter Drake Bennett writes:

"In the past year, though, a few researchers have begun to realize that magic represents something more: a deep and untapped store of knowledge about the human mind. At a major conference last year in Las Vegas, in a scientific paper published last week and another due out this week, psychologists have argued that magicians, in their age-old quest for better ways to fool people, have been engaging in cutting-edge, if informal, research into how we see and comprehend the world around us. Just as studying the mechanisms of disease reveals the workings of our body's defenses, these psychologists believe that studying the ways a talented magician can short-circuit our perceptual system will allow us to better grasp how the system is put together."

I sent Cagigal a link to the story. Interestingly, he was not particularly impressed with what Bennett had to say, though he formulated a terrific response to the article which, with the author's permission having been granted, I would like to share.

First off all, the magician finds it odd that scientists are only now cottoning on to the idea that magicians might have important insights into human behavior: "Funny. Until this report, I never once thought that everything I've been doing since I was a kid wouldn't already be known to scientists. The first time I read an article on this subject, I thought to myself, 'You mean to say that 'they' never knew that?!'"

Cagigal also took issue with the article in a couple of illuminating ways. He objected to the sentence, "Stage magic, after all, isn't statecraft, but spectacle and entertainment." While acknowledging that the assertion has been very true over the past 150 years (with but a few rarely known exceptions) Cagigal thinks that it's time for magic to be seen in a new light. "I've been trying to fight this idea of magic in people's minds but I've got a long road ahead of me."

Cagigal took further umbrage at a quote from magician Raymond Teller (of Penn and Teller) which says: "The fundamental thing we do every day is ascertain what is reality, it's this diagnosis of what the signals coming into our eyes are supposed to mean. We say, 'That's a fence, I must not walk into it,' or, 'Is that a car coming around the corner? How much can I see of it? Oh, no, it's only a bicycle.'" About Teller's opinion, Cagigal has this to say: "What draws people to magic, Teller believes, is an appreciation of how slippery that seemingly simple diagnosis can be.'They realize,' Teller says in the story, 'that the best way to grasp the power of deception is to do it themselves.' I consider that middle statement to be a rather cynical point of view about magic. But, that is not surprising when you consider that we are talking about half of Penn and Teller. Their take has always been that of 'These are all phony tricks.' While that sentiment is still a important one to be aware of (that we are all being fooled at sometime or another) it's driven by a deep seeded skepticism that has more to do with personal beliefs and issues and less to do with why anybody is attracted to magic."

What I particularly love about Cagigal's response to the Boston Globe article is how he uses it as a jumping point to talk about his personal philosophies about magic. "Some of us get into magic because we want to make magic!" he writes. "We love magic and magical things and giving people a world of magic to live in. If this wasn't so important why would Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter be among the biggest movie franchises? And that's to say nothing of Dungeons and Dragons and the multitude of fantasy genre entertainment and toys and clothes and stuff!"

Rounding off his passionate discussion, Cagigal wrote about a lecture he attended given by Eugene Burger, a respected magician (albeit lesser known to the public.) During the lecture, someone asked Burger, "Why in our day and age of faster, better, cooler technology do we still like magic and magic shows? Why do still pay money to see magic?" Burger's answer, according to Cagigal, was simple: "Because the human heart cries out for magic."

"Lets face it, that's true," Cagigal says. "I can't really say why that's true. That point can be analyzed for hours. Folks like Penn and Teller don't seem to understand that. (Even though when Teller is left alone on stage to perform it's the most beautiful magical stuff ever created. But, those moments are rare. Usually, Penn's with him and it's tricks and cynicism all the time.)"

"The worst cynics and skeptics are magicians," says Cagigal by way of conclusion. "Funnily enough, I also think that cynics are nothing more than people who really want to believe in magic, they just don't want to be fooled."
August 7, 2008 1:15 PM | | Comments (1)
I've long been aware of the impact that a performance venue can have on an audience. But it wasn't until I saw two shows on two adjacent days in two very different venues by the same company that I realized just how differently audiences behave in contrasting settings.

Last week, I caught two of the four productions in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's summer season: Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well and Lanford Wilson's Burn This. All's Well was performed in the Glen -- a magical and surprisingly intimate outdoor space framed by towering redwood trees. Burn This was produced in the Festival's great indoor space, which also feels quite cozy despite its fairly generous 500+ seat size thanks to the gentle rake of the stadium seating around the apron stage. The audience for the Shakespeare was one of the most responsive I've ever seen at any production -- indoor or outdoor. They cheered and whooped with delight in the comic scenes. They yelled out stuff like "oh no!" when Bertram rejected Helena. They clapped between scenes and generally made themselves very much part of the experience. Contrastingly, the Wilson crowd was much more subdued. They clapped only at the end of the entire play. You could have heard a pin drop in the room, it was so quiet.

I should start out by stating the obvious: In order to compare the impact of spaces properly, I would need to see the same -- or at least very similar -- plays produces in the two venues. Burn This is clearly a very different kind of theatrical experience than All's Well. Yet in some ways the two works are comparable -- they're both pretty intense plays about human relationships, they're both dark comedies, and the key characters in both dramas are complex and fully-rounded. Given that a large percentage of SSC's audiences are subscribers and go to see most if not all of the four shows on the festival's program, a comparison doesn't seem completely spurious.

So why should the audiences respond in such polar ways? It's hard to believe that the content and presentation of the plays themselves are responsible for this phenomenon. I have a hunch that the reactions of the crowd have more to do with the settings than anything else. If Burn This were performed in the Glen, amid those wonderful trees and with people lounging on blankets, munching snacks and drinking wine throughout, I think audiences would be much more vocal. Similarly, All's Well would probably provoke less of an overt reaction if it were played under a lighting grid than a leafy canopy, with the audience sitting in regular rows of theatre seats without the snacks and drinks.

I'd be interested to find out if the experience I had at these two plays matches the one for audiences seeing the other two productions in SSC's current season: Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and Itamar Moses' Bach at Leipzig. On a related theme -- I wonder how contemporary plays like Moses' and Wilson's would play outdoors? Putting the Bard under the stars is the obvious thing to do. I wonder if the festival's new artistic director Marco Barricelli will ever be bold enough to stage a newer work in the Glen and bring Shakespeare inside?
August 6, 2008 2:20 PM | | Comments (2)
Those arts critics are an unscrupulous bunch. I should know -- I should know: I'm a professional theatre reviewer.

It was interesting, therefore, to find myself at the receiving end of a review for the first time since I started working as an arts journalist. Last Saturday, my a cappella vocal ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, staged the opening night of our Indian dance and music-infused "fusion" take on Ordo Virtutum, a 12th century musical drama by the German Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen. San Francisco Classical Voice sent a critic, Jason Victor Serinus, to review the show.

The review was kind of mixed: the critic didn't much like our unorthodox approach to the material from a theological perspective: "While no Reader's Digest summary can do justice to a complex belief system and way of life that embraces ideologies of reincarnation, karma, and spiritual liberation, it seems safe to say that Christianity and Hinduism offer different paths to God. Throw Celtic music, rooted in the pagan tradition of Goddess-based nature worship, into the mix, and you have a very confused spiritual cosmology that trivializes Hildegard's faith."

But Serinus seemed to enjoy the musicianship: "On a purely musical level, San Francisco Renaissance Voices excelled."

I played the role of Anima, the soul who gets seduced by the Devil and then returns, repentant, to the true path. I don't mean to sound like the universe revolves around me, but the fact that the critic didn't have anything to say about my performance is a bit troubling. Failing to talk about Anima is a bit like writing a review of Hamlet without talking about the actor who played drama's most famous Danish prince.

Makes me wonder. Very often, if I steer clear of talking about a key actor's performance, particularly in a smallish production, it's because I don't have anything positive to say...

Anyway, I'm intrigued at how unfazed I'm feeling about the whole thing. I'm just happy to be part of the work. And what do I take away from the experience of being reviewed as a critic? The main thing, I think, is a greater awareness of how much people involved in a production care about what's said about them -- even if it's just being said by some random guy in a local, online classical music publication. The sheer number of emails that have bounced around today between various members of my group is staggering. I always knew critics at the New York Times and The Guardian could influence productions. I didn't think San Francisco Classical Voice would make such an impression.

This experience will, if nothing else, remind me of the power of words.
August 5, 2008 6:22 PM | | Comments (1)
On Friday morning, during a trip to Santa Cruz to review a couple of shows in this year's Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival, I found myself sitting at breakfast in the lovely waterfront B&B where I stayed overnight, chatting with a New York-based television producer about classical music.

The producer, whom I shall call D, is in the early stages of putting together a television documentary about classical music, specifically looking at the barriers preventing the wider reception of classical music in America today. D was in town to catch the opening night of the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival.

D is a big fan of Classical period composers. He especially loves Mozart. "I grew up with this music," he said. D was feeling slightly apprehensive about attending the Cabrillo Festival, as in the past, he admitted, he had not gotten a lot out of contemporary classical music. "It doesn't really have any melodies," he told me over fresh scones and lemon preserves. "There's nothing to hang on to."

I thought it was interesting that someone planning on making a documentary about barriers preventing the wider reception of classical music should have this attitude. "I wonder if your feelings about contemporary classical music in some way reflect what many people say about classical music in general in this country?" I suggested. "I mean, you like Mozart because it's wired into your system. You've been listening to the composer's music all your life, so his melodies, rhythms and harmonic systems seem completely familiar and natural to you. If other people feel the same way about Mozart as you do about, say, John Cage, George Benjamin and Conlon Nancarrow, then perhaps that's because they haven't spent a lot of time with Mozart. As a result, his music sounds weird. They don't understand it. Getting to grips with this 'unusual' sound would require a lot of effort, so it's easier just to say they don't like it and stick to stuff they know they do like, whether that be folk music, rap, hip-hop or whatever."

D thought about this for a second and then said, "But you can't compare your average pop song to a Mozart symphony or piano concerto. Pop music is generally very simple. Often it only employs three chords and has very straight forward repeated melodies. Whereas Mozart's music is so sophisticated."

I pushed my point further. "You know, about six months ago, I would have been inclined to agree with you," I told D. I then went on to describe my experience of learning and performing Ordo Virtutum, a 12th century musical drama by Hildegard von Bingen composed in Germanic Latin plainchant, with my a cappella singing ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices. "When I first received the score, I was completely put off by the music. It seemed like an incomprehensible jumble of notes to me. It had no hummable melodies, no rhythms to speak of and, being monophonic, no harmonies," I explained. "But gradually, as I got comfortable with the music and started to learn it, I found that it started to take shape. After a few weeks, Hildegard's formerly dull and inscrutable chants seemed like the most beautiful music in the world. All I needed was to take the time to immerse myself in it."

The point I was trying to make to D is rather simple: People put up barriers to classical music (and many other art forms) not at the deepest level because they find it too complicated or elitist, but rather because they're just not used to hearing it. If J. S. Bach's Toccatas were constantly played on commercial radio stations and in shopping malls, people would inevitably soak up the composer's sounds. After a while, they might actually dig it. Or at the very least, gain an understanding of how it works.

Thinking about this subject reminds me of the time I experienced my first -- and, at this point in time, last -- Chinese opera at Berkeley's Cal Performances the year before last. The Peony Pavilion is regarded as a masterwork. But to me, it sounded like cats being strangled. If I were to listen to lots more Chinese opera, I'm certain the barriers would come down. I may not ever fall in love with this form of music. But I would doubtless be more inclined to stay open-minded and curious about it.

So I wonder if the answer to the barriers question is, at least in part, one of immersion? This is kind of obvious really. It all boils down to openness and education. Simply dismissing unfamiliar genres as "dumb", "elitist" or whatever is all too easy.

I'm not sure what D made of my breakfast table tirade. I'm excited about his project anyway. I hope it comes off.
August 4, 2008 6:20 PM | | Comments (1)
Everyone I've spoken to regarding Phyllida Lloyd's movie adaptation of the irrepressibly perky ABBA musical, Mama Mia!, absolutely loathes the film. Anthony Lane's scathing review in The New Yorker pretty much sums up the feelings of many other people I've talked with about the movie in recent weeks.

Yet as saccharine, badly filmed and poorly performed as it may be, the movie seems to be garnering wild praise from one particular section of society: women of a certain age. From my mother to the lady in the coffee shop down the road, to my vocal coach, female Baby Boomers are getting hot flushes over the musical.

This isn't altogether surprising. We simply love to see ourselves -- or a flattering projection of ourselves -- reflected in the culture. Infused with catchy songs by the 70s supergroup and featuring a story about forthright, 50-something ladies living the good life, Mama Mia! easily appeals to the fantasies of this particular demographic. It matters not that Pierce Brosnan (in his most career-destroying role to date) can barely hold a note and that Meryl Streep looks like a dyspeptic giraffe in her knee-high silver-glittered platform-heeled boots. What matters is that the middle-aged female characters have all best lines not to mention the most sex in the film. And that Meryl and Pierce end up in the sack.

Should it bother us that cultural products like Mama Mia! have such narrow appeal? Certainly the film is not alone in alienating large numbers of people and pleasing few. Female Baby Boomers certainly are a powerful enough economic and social force to drive the movie's box office. The film made the strongest debut of any musical on screen to date, box office-wise.

Demographics are a curious thing. The rules that govern how they work seem to have very little to do with the quality of the product.
August 3, 2008 2:23 PM | | Comments (10)

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