lies like truth: January 2009 Archives

Outside the realm of classical music, the combination of viola and cello isn't all that common. Fans of Peter Weir's movie Master and Commander will be familiar with Boccherini's "La Musica Notturna Delle Strade di Madrid Op. 6 No. 30". But the violin-cello combo is by and large a relative rarity in pop culture.

So it was a delight to hit The Ark, a cozy acoustic music venue in Ann Arbor Michigan, the other evening and hear the seasoned Scottish folk fiddle virtuoso Alasdair Fraser performing with the young, Californian, Julliard-trained cellist Natalie Haas.

Over the two-hour program of traditional numbers, adaptations of newish pieces by contemporary folk musicians and pieces composed by Fraser himself, the players brought out qualities in each other that I don't often hear. The cello was used more like a percussion instrument - Haas underpinned Fraser's careening, jaunty melodies with driving rhythms. She played more like a droning bagpiper or rhythm guitarist in a rock band than a classically-educated cellist. And there was a sonority, subtlety and depth to Fraser's playing that one doesn't often hear in fiddle-led folk music.

The musicians, who've been playing together for more than ten years and first met when Haas was just 11 years old and a student at one of Fraser's fiddle workshops, managed to whip the audience into a dancing frenzy by the end of the evening. Fraser and Haas had us all up on our feet attempting to jig. Their energy was infectious.

The musicians are performing all over the country in the coming months. Click here for a schedule. I'm looking forward to catching Fraser and Haas when they appear at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley on March 10 and 11. I'll be wearing my dancing shoes.

P.S. The duo's latest album, In the Moment, is one of the best folk recordings I've heard in several years.
January 29, 2009 6:21 PM | | Comments (0)
I'm often asked by performers, producers and directors for advice about how to put together and send out a press release -- what information to include, how long the document should run, whether it should be delivered via email and/or in hard copy format etc.

I'm always very happy to answer these questions, as to my mind, too many arts organizations end up creating press releases that are, frankly, less than optimal. The majority of these documents, which I imagine take a great deal of time and effort to produce and distribute, simply end up filling the recycling bin in my office.

So I thought I would put together a quick list of do's and dont's as a starting point for anyone looking for press release advice. Feel free to argue against any of the following and weigh in with additional pointers that I might have missed:

1. Keep it short: Press releases should never be more than two pages long as writers and editors simply don't have the time to trawl through reams of prose. One page is even better. Think of the trees.

2. Put the most important information at the top of the page in bold and/or capitals. This includes the title of the event, the main artistic personnel, the venue, the start and end date, media contact information and a URL for a relevant website.

3. Put a summary of all the key calendar data -- the what, who, when and where (including cross streets for the venue address and a telephone number) plus ticket information -- in a small box or list at the end of the document.

4. Devote a short paragraph to describing the event. Briefly state what it's about and why it's happening. Think of this part as the elevator pitch.

5. Devote an even shorter paragraph to listing the main personnel involved. Avoid going into peoples' biographies in any detail unless knowing one or two key facts about their sparkling careers is, in your opinion, a major selling point for the event.

6. Keep the tone formal and try to avoid editorializing too much. Write like a reporter covering a news story. Simply state the facts. Avoid superlatives at all costs.

7. Use a simple font, e.g. Times or Arial at 12 pt and use bold and/or capitals for headlines and key information throughout the document.

8. Have at least two people check the text for typos and inaccurate information.

9. Send the document via email -- both as plain text within the body of a message and as an attachment in word or pdf format. This avoids the costly business of stuffing envelopes and buying stamps, prevents recycling bin cloggage at the receiving end and, once again, saves valuable environmental resources.

10. State the name of the event and the main producer/artist in the subject line of the email e.g. "Magic Theatre Presents World Premiere of Territories by Betty Shamieh".

11. Send out press releases well in advance of the event. There's nothing wrong with telling members of the media about what's going on several months or even a year ahead, especially since magazines have such long deadlines. Then follow up once more (or twice more if you initially sent out the release more than two months in advance) with a resend of the release closer to the date. Don't send out information about the same event more than three times.

12. Keep your email contact list up to date to increase the likelihood of your missives reaching their destinations and hitting their targets.

13. Avoid pestering journalists over the phone with questions about "did you receive the release I sent you?" Chances are they did.
January 29, 2009 7:23 AM | | Comments (1)
One of the best things about spending a couple of hours at the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan, are the tour guides. They ask questions of the group. They have a great, deadpan sense of humor. They tell the story of the legendary soul music corporation founded in 1959 in the unassuming two-storey residential building in which the museum is housed with relaxed aplomb, using the personal pronouns "we" and "us" instead of "they" and "them" to create a cozy sense of inclusivity and immediacy. And they talk faster than Michael Jackson dances, so you have to be alert to keep up.

Housed in the unassuming two-storey residential building that served as the headquarters of one of pop music history's most famous song factories between 1959 and 1972, the museum -- with the aid of its formidable guides -- takes visitors back through history, stopping en route to take stock not only of countless hits and soul music esoterica but of the impact of Motown on social and cultural history.

Though the museum is small, there's plenty to look at and think about, from the Steinway Grand that's been played by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and the sequinned glove Jackson wore in his "Billie Jean" video to the influence of Motown on British bands like The Beatles and its role in the civil rights movement.

It's equally fascinating to hear about founder Berry Gordy's canny business sense, in terms of how he transformed an $800 loan into a multi-million dollar corporation by being a formidable spotter of talent, getting around radio airplay rules and taking a do-it-yourself approach to everything from packaging 48s to working through the night to produce hundreds of takes.

I suppose ultimately I would have enjoyed a slightly less cheerleadery view of Motown's legacy. Like the records that Gordy put out, there's a lot of spin on the story. The guides skim over (or completely omit) the less shiny bits, like the reasons for Gordy's decision to expand his company to Los Angeles in 1968 following the Detroit riots and finally cease operations in Detroit entirely in 1972, his skepticism regarding protest songs like Gaye's "What's Going On?" and Motown's decline in more recent decades. Still, the emotion one feels while walking through the cramped corridors of "Hitsville USA" and standing in the very studio where some of the greatest musicians and songwriters of the 20th century made their magic is at times overwhelming.
January 28, 2009 7:16 AM | | Comments (4)
I don't have many memories of great teachers from my university years. I might have attended some posh institutions of learning during my time as a graduate and undergraduate including King's College Cambridge, The Central School of Speech and Drama and Harvard. The lessons I remember most vividly come from an earlier period -- my primary and secondary education. I don't recall anything much about hearing the likes of Germaine Greer or David Mamet lecture. But I have powerful recollections of a mind-blowing class about "four dimensional worlds" given by a math teacher at my secondary school in Canterbury, Kent when I was fourteen years old.

So it was fascinating to spend some time in a lecture theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the weekend, in the company of Ralph Williams (pictured left) -- one of those rare university academics who truly knows how to make a lecture stick in the beholder's heart and mind. Williams, a beloved and now retiring English Literature and Near Eastern Studies professor at the University of Michigan, gave a farewell lecture at a tribute event held in his honor at the University's Rackham Auditorium on Saturday evening.

Williams, a 67-year-old Shakespeare junkie from Canada gave a talk about how the Bard's work ekes out a small space for pity in the reader or theatregoer between the threat of destruction ("the uplifted sword") and the inevitability of destruction ("the fall of the sword.") The message was ultimately one about the power of art as a call to humanity.

There's nothing particularly revolutionary about the ideas Williams talked about in his lecture. I'm sure I've heard this speech, or something like it, many times before in Cambridge Massachusetts and Cambridge UK. But the ideas have never quite been packaged in this way before.

"Williams would have made a great the 19th century" quipped Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company who was present at the tribute event and gave a speech in honor of Williams. (The RSC was also being recognized at the event for its relationship with the University.) Boyd is right. Williams performed his lecture as if standing behind the footlights on a Victorian era stage. This latterday Edmund Kean's voice modulated from an anguished, vibrato-laden bleat as he described, with a stricken face, King Lear's entry on stage carrying the body of his dead daughter Cordelia, to titanic, warbling, red-faced rage when channeling Prospero.

As over-the-top as Williams' performance was, it was equally magnetic. A predilection for quoting at length from parts of Shakespeare that most stage directors ignore (e.g. Hamlet's speech about Pyrrhus to the actors in Act 2 scene 2) would have been dull in another lecturer's mouth. Yet Williams is so completely gaga about each syllable that you can't help but feel some of his enthusiasm rub off on you as you listen.

Then there are his hands. Boyd's description of Williams' hands as being like those of E.T. the Extraterrestrial was perfect. I couldn't take my eyes of his incredibly long fingers, which snaked around in the air like tendrils or stuck out stiffly like the Wolverine's blades throughout his talk. When he wasn't using his hands to underscore some point about Othello or The Tempest like some manic orchestral conductor, he was rubbing his nails self-consciously as if trying to stave off chilblains. In another lecturer, these ticks would be unbearable. But in Williams, somehow they're art.

Williams' lecture about Shakespeare was not one that I'll forget in a hurry. Why? Because it was pure theatre.
January 27, 2009 7:35 AM | | Comments (0)
Theatre critics and other performing arts community people often wonder how best to make a graceful exit from a venue when you don't like the show and have to run the gauntlet past the director/performers/producer etc on your way out to the sanctity of the nearest bar.

Some people I know simply slip out during the applause so that they don't have to risk confronting the artists. Ungracious cowards. 

Others adopt the "two block rule", smiling benignly when asked what they thought of the show as they head out the door, and only letting out their true feelings when they've put at least two blocks of distance between themselves and the venue. This is also pretty yellow-bellied.

A third group simply lies through their teeth, telling the artists how much they enjoyed the show even when they really didn't get much out of it at all. On occasion, I imagine some critics even manage to persuade themselves that they did, after all, like what they saw and end up writing a panegyric in print. This is no worse, I suppose, than saying you thought a show was great to the director's face and then going on to slam his or her efforts in the review.

Finally, there's the use of the carefully turned phrase. This is hard to pull off as it requires confrontation while attempting to maintain one's integrity. A dramaturg friend of mine recently told me that when she's faced with talking to artists after a show she didn't like, she enthuses "I had the most marvelous seats! I could see everything from where I sat!" I've also heard people say things like, "Wow! That was really something!" and "Congratulations on all your hard work!" Some of these lines are OK. I usually get tongue-tied and can't think of them at the right moment though. 

No method of dealing with this situation is ideal in other words. I can't pretend to have mastered the art of the graceful exit. But I'm getting better at it with practice.

In other news, "lies like truth" will be taking a long weekend break. I'm off to sunny Michigan today and will post again upon return to the Bay Area on Tuesday. Until then, keep your wits about you.
January 22, 2009 8:02 AM | | Comments (7)
When Marin Theatre Company decided to stage Athol Fugard's 1989 play My Children! My Africa! 11 months ago, Barack Obama's ascent to the U.S. presidency was a faraway prospect, not the dizzying reality that it became yesterday when the former Illinois senator was sworn in as this country's 44th president.

Experiencing Fugard's drama about a country on the brink of change just a few hours after having stood with hundreds of people on the Berkeley campus watching the inauguration celebrations on a big screen presented a different angle on the latest chapter in U.S. history. In my book, that constitutes a great night out at the theatre.

Set in the township of Camdeboo in South Africa in 1984, the play's story develops out of a teacher's (L Peter Callender) well meaning, race relations-strengthening ruse to co-opt his prize pupil -- the fiercely intelligent and politically-engaged Thami (Lloyd Roberson II) and a precocious, upwardly mobile white girl from the nearby prep school, Isabel (Laura Morache) into joining together as a multi-racial team at an upcoming national literary quiz. But even though Thami, Mr. M and Isabel all hit it off, escalating racial violence and school boycotts destroy the educational venture, forcing all three characters to take sides.

On the face of it, there's little about this play that immediately brings U.S. politics to mind. And yet as I watched the play -- which, despite the rather didactic second act, otherwise made for riveting theatre -- lines from Obama's inauguration speech, or thoughts that his speech brought up, kept floating into my mind.

One thing that struck me about the drama was Fugard's vision of the classroom as a testing ground for democracy. The play begins with a debate about equal rights for women and Mr. M goes to great lengths to show his students how the democratic process works and how its application in school relates to the real world. This emphasis on a nation growing up and progressing beyond the classroom into adulthood was also a key theme in Obama's speech. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," the President said. "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

Thami's view of Mr. M as ''an old-fashioned traditionalist'' who believes in the power of language and reason as the most effective means of achieving freedom also brought many aspects of Obama's speech to mind. Mr. M speaks in the play of the importance of building over destroying, echoing Obama's words: "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." The President frequently pushed diplomacy over might  -- a dualism rendered visually in Fugard's play through the symbols of the book of poetry representing education and the rock representing violence. "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," Obama said. After the speech, many commentators spoke of the president's desire to return to the "old fashioned" and "traditional" values that the country has lost sight of in recent decades.

My Children! My Africa! brings this new chapter in American history to mind in more obvious ways too: Like South Africa in the mid-1980s, the U.S. is currently undergoing a radical shift, with recession and the war in Iraq causing a fundamental breakdown across many communities. The climate of apartheid that so noxiously permeates Fugard's play was recalled by Obama when he spoke of how his father, who arrived in the U.S. from Kenya, might not have been served at a restaurant in this country sixty years ago. Meanwhile, from a stylistic perspective, Fugard's play comes across like a long series of polemic speeches. I felt like I was listening to three inaugural addresses at the theatre last night.

On January 14, Fugard's latest play, Coming Home, had its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut. I haven't seen or read the play. But I wonder if theatregoers on the East Coast who've experienced Coming Home over the past week, also heard the echoes between Fugard's dramatic landscape and our own here in the U.S.?
January 21, 2009 9:23 AM | | Comments (0)
A funny thing happened at The Garage, an underground performance space in San Francisco's SOMA district, on Sunday night: The venue's artistic director, Joe Landini, held the curtain for at least15 minutes minutes while several audience members tried to find parking and even went as far as to call one of them on her cellphone to find out her estimated time of arrival.

"Everyone say, 'Hi Jessica'," Landini instructed, striding up to the front of the room theatrically with his cellphone pressed to his ear. He was going to milk this one for all it was worth. When the woman on the end of the line picked up her phone, Landini held his phone up in the air and we all dutifully yelled "Hi Jessica." What lemmings! "How far away are you?" he asked. A few seconds later, he snapped his cellphone shut and said to us all: "Alright, folks, Jessica's coming." Some fifteen minutes or so later, a small group of theatregoers turned up and were ushered to their seats. We were all instructed to say "Hi Jessica" once again. Then the lights went down and the show began.

I didn't get the impression that Landini had a special relationship with these latecomers. In fact, he may not have known them at all -- some other audience member acquainted with Jessica and party may have asked Landini if he would kindly delay the start of the show for a few minutes, and he decided to make a big deal of it for a bit of fun. It wasn't as if the theatre was empty and starved for patrons, either -- on the contrary, practically every seat in the house was occupied.

In short, it was one of those touching, funny and slightly annoying experiences that makes going to see shows at small venues so unique. It's hard to imagine this kind of thing happening at ACT, Berkeley Rep or any other sizable house -- unless a visiting critic from The New York Times or Wall Street Journal happened to call in claiming to be stuck in traffic.

I wonder to what extent receiving this "special treatment" from The Garage made latecomer Jessical feel like a V.I.P.?
January 19, 2009 8:22 PM | | Comments (0)
Contemporary dance / physical theatre has a reputation for taking itself a little too seriously. The performers' appearance and movements might look comical to audience members -- it's hard not to laugh at a dance troupe that walks on stage wearing green, furry leotards and phallic head-dresses and then proceeds to do the moonwalk -- but the artists themselves are, all too often, a frightfully earnest bunch, hellbent on their Important Mission of delivering Great Art.

So it's always refreshing to come across dance companies who have a bit of a sense of humor about what they do; who are able to make a serious point through comedy, or are open to the deeply unfashionable idea that dance can simply be entertaining. Last night, the mixed-bag of offerings by female dance and physical theatre artists at the ninth annual Women on the Way Festival (WOW) provided several intriguing insights into the relationship between humor and dance.

1. A combination of bold physicality and humor in a dance piece can deliver a pungent message

SoShe's Performance Collective (pictured left in impressively silly style, cavorting in party dresses on a log) contributed the lion's share of last night's program. The works on offer veered between a range of moods and styles, solos and group works. The strongest piece of the entire evening was the finale, Standard Procedure, which struck me as a hilarious satirical piece about the difficulties of living in a world of red tape, rules, regulations and other irritating forms of bureaucracy. Kerri Myers' choreography was frenetic and earth-bound. The dancers twisted themselves into knots of frustration, kicking bits of colored tape around the floor. The costumes were comical. The dancers wore helmets on their heads and "harnesses" made from colorful ribbons across their chests with red bicycle lights in the middle. Every now and again, the dancers would "lock horns" by butting their helmets against each other. They looked like the children of over-protective parents, a mood which was further underscored by the innocent sounds of the peppy Linda Scott song that accompanied the movement at one point. Without rubbing our noses in the message, Myers and her cohorts entertained us and engaged our brains with a fresh take on environmental constraints.

2. Attempting to make a dance piece funny doesn't necessarily make the audience laugh.

Less successful on the comedic front was Judge Not, a piece contrasting opposing opinions regarding pregnancy, co-written and performed by SoShe's Julie Wolfrum and Alison Yoder. Yoder and Wolfrum strode on stage wearing goggles and long black coats. The coats eventually came off to reveal brightly-colored work-out gear. The dancers kvetched about the treatment of pregnant women in public situations e.g. the issue of getting seats on public transportation, and then jigged about like a latterday Salt 'N' Pepper, doing 80s-style disco and hip-hop steps. The artists seemed to want to couch serious points about public perceptions regarding pregnancy in funny physical language, but the effect was rather obvious and sophomoric.

3. In a mixed program of serious and silly works, the silly ones are often the most memorable.

Alongside SoShe's Standard Procedure, another engaging work in the evening was The Virgin Sea by the Laura Arrington Dance Company. This Pirates of the Caribbeanesque physical theatre piece was packed with dreamlike whimsy and broad humor. Arrington and her dancers conveyed the vaguest outlines of a story about a shipwrecked sailor, a pirate and a parrot through live songs and strong physical motifs. The contrast between the work's erotic, ethereal side and its vaudevillian sense of fun made it come alive. The performers blared out salty ditties about sailing on the ocean. A riff composed of an attitude-inspired port-de-bras and Yoga-infused "Warrior Two" pose suggested a billowing sail. A prostate, open-mouthed posture embodied a human being washed up on a distant shore. Colorful gumballs cascaded all over the performance space throughout the work. Sometimes the dancers ravenously filled their cheeks with them, and then found themselves almost unable to move, let alone dance with their jaws locked in the business of trying to chew. Meanwhile a performer hopped about the stage with a furry parrot hat on his head, perhaps in search of a shoulder to perch on. The piece was rather gimmicky in a way, but the strength of its comedy, powerful sense of ensemble and unusualness of its imagery created a strong emotional impact on the viewer. I, for one, felt like I was being tossed about on the ocean waves for the duration of the piece. The sum effect was rather like reading nonsense verses by Hillaire Beloc or Edward Lear's Gromboolian Poems ("The Owl and The Pussycat" perhaps.) It was both a wonderful and disorienting feeling.

Elsewhere in the program, various heady, "issues"-based and/or autobiographical solos and earth-motherly group pieces by the SoShe lot came and went. But the rest of the works on show, though thoughtfully executed and not lacking in moments of physical flair and emotional appeal, paled in comparison to The Virgin Sea and Standard Procedure. The chief ingredient they lacked, I thought, was a healthy dose of the absurd.

Produced by Footloose, the WOW Festival runs through February 1 at Shotwell Studios in The Mission and The Garage Artspace in SOMA.
January 19, 2009 8:28 AM | | Comments (3)
Many people have been worried about how Berkeley Symphony would fare following the announcement a couple of years ago of Kent Nagano's departure from the post of music director after 30 years of dedicated service.

Happily, everyone can now cast their concerns aside, as the orchestra finally reached a decision about who will take the Berkeley Symphony to new heights in the years ahead.

The brilliant young Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro has just been hired as the orchestra's new MD and I can't think of a better person to pick up and run with Maestro Nagano's baton. I've been working on a story about music director hiring processes in American orchestras for the past few months and had the pleasure of watching Carneiro in action and chatting with her during rehearsal breaks and over coffee.

Here's why I think she'll be a great fit for Berkeley Symphony:

1. She's young, full of energy, smart, articulate and has a good sense of humor.

2. She has a relaxed manner and is very approachable but at the same time knows how to get down to business and accomplishes a great deal in a two-hour rehearsal.

3. She appears to have an strong network of friends and mentors within the top echelons of the classical music world which will doubtless stand her in good stead in terms of future artistic collaborations and funding development. In addition to building a career conducting all over Europe, Carneiro has served as assistant conductor under Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also has a warm relationship with Jon Adams, whom she has collaborated with in the past. The composer came up on stage after the orchestra performed his Shaker Loops during Carneiro's guest conductor "audition" concert in Berkeley in December and gave her a big hug.

4. She's capable of getting the best out of Berkeley Symphony's diverse players, some of whom are community members rather than professionals. Her attention to detail is tremendous. In a rehearsal I attended of the Adams work, she devoted her attention to such things as perfecting the intonation of harmonics, the togetherness of pizzicato notes in the cellos and the placement of a crescendo in the double basses.

5. She doesn't shy away from tackling big, hairy chestnuts. In her "audition" concert, she gave Beethoven's Fifth Symphony more "welly" than I've ever heard in a performance of the work. She made Shaker Loops sound like the cosmic machine that it's meant to be and found a way to make Magnus Lindberg's Chorale ring like an old church organ being played with the bell stops out, recalling the force that inspired the piece, J. S. Bach.

6. She has a commanding presence on the podium without coming across as being affected.

Carneiro shared some thoughts with me about the orchestra and the Berkeley community over coffee the morning after delivering her epic performance on the podium. "Berkeley Symphony is a very special orchestra. Both Kent and the musicians have set a high standard of music making," Carneiro said. "What separates the Berkeley community from other places is its intellectuality and creativity. Many academics and artists live here. This job is exactly what I'm looking for. It will enable me to investigate in a profound way both of these worlds. Berkeley audiences are open minded and intelligent so the possibilities for engaging with them are unlimited. The more I know this community the more I feel I belong here."

I can't wait to find out what Maestro Carneiro does with the orchestra.
January 16, 2009 8:34 AM | | Comments (0)
Les Yeux Noirs, a six-piece, French Gypsy/Yiddish music band fronted by the virtuostic, fiddle-playing brothers Eric and Olivier Slabiak, have visited San Francisco 12 times to date. I'm ashamed to say that I only got around to experiencing their sound for the first time last night.

The band has rightfully built up an enormous local following over the years. Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco, which hosted the musicians, was packed for the 8pm set. A smaller, but equally ardent crowd turned up to hear the band play at 10pm. Utterly entranced, some audience members, including my friend Laetitia and I, stayed for both.

Both hour-long programs spun my head with their frenetic (or as the Slabiak brothers might describe it in their native French -- "bordelique" --) energy, turmeric-infused scales and vibrant warmth. Flanked by a drummer, accordionist, electric guitar player and electric bassist, the violinists wove together a program of madcap instrumental pieces that made you want to jump up and down and clap, and deeply affecting ballads sung in gorgeously rich voices (yes -- the brothers can sing too.) Languages featured on this musical odyssey ranged from Yiddish to Russian to French. There was some Romany and Serbian music on the menu too.

I don't often experience so many varying musical moods during a single gig at a jazz or rock club. There were soft, sweet lullabies, songs of pain and toil, peppy dance pieces and ardent anthems. The unison playing on the violins was extremely tight and fast. The harmonies, which occasionally veered beyond the standard major or minor thirds into piquant-sounding augmented intervals, were lush and tuneful. Sometimes the brothers' bows moved at such speeds that they almost became invisible.

In perhaps the most moving and quirky moment of the concert, the brothers segued into one piece by broadcasting a snippet of a recording of their grandmother singing at a family party in the 1960s over the club's sound system. Eric said he found the tape by accident recently and transferred it onto a CD in order to play it on tour. Grandma's sweetly hoarse voice growled out a thick melody in Yiddish and brought the brothers' roots firmly into focus. The recording made me think of my own roots too: the Slabiak brothers and I share the same great, great grandmother, it turns out. Though we are only distantly related, I feel proud to be able to call these demonic, black-eyed fiddlers my cousins.
January 15, 2009 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
The first I heard of Anna Russell, an Anglo-Canadian stage comedienne who -- somewhat improbably by today's standards -- became famous in the mid-20th century for parodying the world of classical music, was during a singing lesson a few weeks ago. I was trying to think of a good idea for a comic song to perform at an upcoming recital, and Russell's name came up in conversation. My normally laid-back singing teacher started doing an impression of her, straightening her back, pulling in her chin and rambling on about Wagner and bagpipes in a "freightfully pawsh" British accent. I didn't really have the foggiest idea what she was on about, but I was intrigued enough by her brief insights into Russell to check out clips of the comedienne on YouTube, borrow her autobiography entitled I'm Not Making This Up You Know from my local library and rent a compendium of her interviews and stage performances on DVD from Netflix.

Russell, who was born in London into an upper class military family in 1911 and died in Australia in 2006, turns out to be an intriguing character and a hilariously self-deprecating autobiographer. Today, it's hard to imagine a matronly-looking, third rate vocalist filling Carnegie Hall and The Royal Albert Hall to the gills with fake lectures about The Ring Cycle, Gilbert and Sullivan and the French Horn interspersed with doggerel-like ditties. But Russell apparently managed it with ease. During a career that spanned several decades and many countries, the performer turned her failed hopes of becoming an opera star into box office gold.

I'm Not Making This Up is probably the most entertaining biography I've read since delving into Alexander Walker's book about Peter Sellers early last year. Russell tells brilliantly madcap anecdotes about everything from driving Ralph Vaughn Williams and other august professors at the Royal College of Music mad with her incompetence, to receiving Leopold Stokowski in Houston, Texas, with cream on her face and curlers in her hair. She's a fount of lore about 20th century music and world travel and tells all of her stories with a refreshing lack of interest in making herself look good.

One thing that strikes me as curious about the book is how little space the author devotes to talking about her performances. We gets reams about the lead-up and the aftermath, including, often, a synopsis of the reviews she received in the press. But she lightly skips over what it is she actually does on stage. This is odd. At first, I imagined this omission to be entirely due to the fact that it's quite hard to describe in words what it is that Russell does (or rather, did) up there. "A standup routine about classical music involving fake lectures, live demonstrations sometimes on invisible instruments and parodies of well-known genres" doesn't really come close to nailing Russell's art. No wonder she had trouble selling her act to promoters in the early part of her career -- they had to see her live on stage to begin to understand her. And even then, no one quite knew what box to put her in. 

But now that I've actually sat through a number of her acts in their entirety on DVD, I'm beginning to think that it's just as well that Russell doesn't bother to explain much about her routines in her book. They're just not very funny. I guess tastes have changed in the half century or so since she was at her professional peak. For I simply couldn't even crack a smile at her warbling pastiches of German lieder and weak jokes about French horns making fashionable hats. Perhaps one had to see her live to feel the vibe. Still, I think she's a brilliantly funny writer and I suppose I did laugh a couple of times during her lecture on how to play the bagpipes.

Russell is hardly a household name today. But she performed an important service to western culture during her long career. For in turning the Serious Business of Classical Music into something worth poking fun at, she rendered it gloriously unstuffy and managed to touch vast numbers of people who professed not to be fans of the genre. In short, she was a breath of fresh air to the stolid world of divas and maestros. These days, only Kiki and Herb come close, and their schtick is decidedly different.

Since Russell left the stage, classical music has slipped even further from the public imagination. If only the 20th century's Queen of Musical Parody had an heir to bring the genre alive in the same irreverent way for 21st century audiences.
January 14, 2009 7:47 AM | | Comments (2)
I wasn't necessarily expecting the experience to be fun or easy. When the managing editor of The Jacket, Berkeley High School's twice monthly internal newspaper, invited me to speak about arts journalism in front of a bunch of the publication's student editors and reporters, the invitation came with a warning: She told me that the group had never before had a speaker from the arts journalism world and that I shouldn't expect the students to be very enthusiastic about my visit.

The last time I'd been invited to talk about journalism in front of a bunch of Berkeley High students was as part of a panel at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in tandem with the company's world premiere of Itamar Moses' journalism-centric play based at the school, Yellowjackets. This had been an uninspiring experience. But I decided not to let that deter my decision to accept the invitation. Talking to people -- especially young people -- about the importance of great arts and culture writing is a passion of mine. I relish every opportunity I get to do it, whether it's meeting one-on-one with an aspiring arts reporter to talk about career options over coffee or holding court in front of 30 seniors at Berkeley's only public school -- the second largest and most populous of its kind in Northern California.

Perhaps the managing editor got her classes muddled up when she warned me about enthusiasm levels. For the students who listened to me rant and rave about what I do for a living and the state of the media in general, were not only awake and enthusiastic, but also asked brilliant questions. In short, I couldn't have hoped for a more attentive group.

Questions ranged from "why should anyone pay attention to what you have to say as a critic?" and "do you ever worry about getting to know artists so well that you can't write negative things about their work?" to "how do you structure a great review?" and "how is the Internet impacting what you do?" The hour flew past. Unlike other similar talks I've given and conversations I've had previously, I think I managed to hit all the bases I wanted to hit, from giving practical, nuts and bolts advice to proffering some more high-level ideas about the importance and role of arts writing in contemporary society and my aspirations for its future.

I don't think I could have gotten close to this target without the good humor and switched-on questioning of The Jacket's staff. The Jacket often features arts pieces, and as many as 60 student writers contribute reviews and other culture articles on a wide variety of events. As such, I was surprised to hear that the paper had up until now never invited an arts writer in to speak. I feel very proud and flattered to have been asked. All being well, I'll get to go back to the school in a couple of months' time to work with a small group of interested writers on review-writing skills. Should be a blast.

This post has been ridiculously gushy, I know. But I mean it when I say that my afternoon at Berkeley High was one of the most meaningful I've had in ages.I don't think I've had so much fun since I hosted my first two-hour-long classical music radio show on NPR a few weeks ago.
January 13, 2009 10:57 AM | | Comments (0)
In an inspired bit of cross-disciplinary thinking, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco commissioned monologist Josh Kornbluth to devise a performance based on Warhol's Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered, the museum's current exhibition of Andy Warhol's famous 1980 portrait series depicting ten well-known Jewish luminaries. The celebrities depicted in the series include: Sarah Bernhardt, Louis Brandeis, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers (considered as one subject rather than three) Golda Meir, George Gershwin, Franz Kafka, and Gertrude Stein. 

The resulting performance, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, provides an illuminating, touching and deeply personal journey into one monologist's response to the portrait series. What I love best about Kornbluth's monologue is its ability to reflect the personal feelings of the performer while at the same time echoing sensations that I myself experienced while wandering around the museum's exhibition halls an hour before the show. Like Kornbluth, I felt confused and a bit put off by Warhol's gaudy "flatnesses," the famous faces masked by impenetrable wedges of color and scar-like outlines. Furthermore, I couldn't understand why this 20th century Catholic master of commercial art would choose to make a study of ten Jews. Why not five Jews? Or ten scientologists?

Stuffed like a knish with Jewish humor, Kornbluth's monologue dives into the series, looking for a way to connect with the portraits and ultimately the artist behind them. The hour-long performance takes us from the nonplussed opening sentiment of "Warhol's Jews. Hmm. I didn't know he kept Jews," to the ultimate realization that Warhol is kind of like a door leading us to "I and Thou" -- the core philosophy of existence espoused by the Jewish thinker Martin Buber (who happens to be one of Warhol's ten Jews.) As such, the monologue takes us from feeling distanced from the portraits to feeling a boundless relationship with them -- and their famously enigmatic creator.

The geniality and warmth of Kornbluth's performance helps to draw us into his personal journey, which is woven together with anecdote from his past. Part sermon, part art lecture and part Borscht Belt standup routine, Kornbluth's latest monologue is not only good for the Jews; it's also good for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. By giving museum goers an intelligent and refreshingly different angle on the series, the museum helps us understand them better in a fun and non-didactic way that makes me want to re-visit the exhibition (and, by association, other shows at the museum) in the future. It would be great to see more museums looking for such ways to cross-fertilize and thus enrich their exhibitions.

Kornbluth's show plays until January 22. Warhol's Jews runs until February 3.
January 12, 2009 8:37 AM | | Comments (0)
It's been a long time since I've come across a more vitriolic collection of reader comments than the nearly 60 responses that follow Robert Hurwitt's December 31 feature story on the San Francisco Chronicle's site about the Magic Theatre's dramatic appeal to raise $350,000 by today, January 9, or face closure.

The anonymity of the online response system makes people comfortable about being rude, of course. And there are always going to be pissed-off individuals out there writing negative stuff just to let off steam. But it's alarming to see just how much anger and cynicism greeted the news of the 42-year-old San Francisco new play bastion's financial woes. Many responses have been deleted from the comments list because they "violated SFGate's terms and conditions." A high proportion of the comments that haven't been removed range from the couldn't-care-less ("Never heard of it when I lived there-guess I won't miss it") to the glib ("If they really are the Magic Theatre they can just conjure up some money.....can't they?") to the the venomous ("I've seen better productions and actors/singers at the local high school's shows.")

What's behind this cavalcade of abuse? I don't think all these people can be embittered, out-of-work actors angry about not being hired by the Magic over the years. Could this outpouring be justified in some way? One has to wonder what's really going on over at Fort Mason when, within the space of less than a year, an artistic director doesn't get his contract renewed, a new artistic director comes in, the managing director gets fired, vast amounts of supposedly unknown debt surfaces and the company embarks upon an "emergency campaign". One of the article's respondees, kwoh910, doubtless echoes many concerned theatregoers when he/she writes: "I was going to donate to help save this theater, but now will reconsider. How did they get themselves in such a mess? Why did their managing leader suddenly leave? Was he responsible for this? To have debt that they didn't know about leads me to believe there is severe mismanagement going on. I don't want my donation to go into a black hole. I'd rather give to a more solid and trustworthy organization."

I personally would like to see the Magic Theatre pull itself out of this hole. The company is an important part of this country's arts legacy and I've been impressed so far with what I've seen of new artistic director Loretta Greco's work. I donated to the Magic's campaign despite certain misgivings of the type espoused by kwoh910.

But there seems to be a lot of smoke and mirrors type stuff going on which makes me feel nervous. Today, the emergency campaign deadline day, the company announced on its website that it would be extending the deadline for three more days. This makes the original ultimatum look rather arbitrary. The fact that the company has started rehearsals for its next production also calls into the question the seriousness of the Magic's plight. It's not that I don't believe that the company is in severe financial straits. It's just that I don't think it is being completely honest about the state of its debt and operations. "We parted ways about 10 days ago. That's all I can say," Greco is quoted as saying of ousted managing director David Jobin in the Chron article.  If the Magic wants to attract donors, don't those donors deserve to know the cause of Jobin's departure? As kwoh910 hints, it's really just a matter of trust.

January 9, 2009 10:05 AM | | Comments (2)
Amanda Ameer's terrific post about classical music concert programs and related resources that may or may not help concertgoers get a handle on what they're about to experience in the concert hall recalled a similar conversation I had with a director friend a few days ago regarding theatre programs.

Until this friend asked me for my views about what constitutes an effective program, I hadn't given the idea much thought. Which is kind of embarrassing, considering the fact that I attend several theatrical productions a week and must have read and amassed thousands of programs over the years.

So what kinds of information should a program for a play contain beyond the usual cast list, biographies, roster of sponsors, ads by local restaurants and call for donations? And, while we're on the subject, should all of these standard elements be included at all? Is a program in the traditional sense of the word even relevant today?

One thing that theatre programs tend to include and which strikes me as totally unnecessary, is a letter from the artistic and/or executive director of the producing company. These letters are meant to be welcoming and informative, but they're usually completely dull, being loaded with panegyrics and generalizations. The AD/MD thanks the donors (do donors need to be thanked in the program? Surely a nice dinner / free theatre tickets / a brass nameplate on a seat-back says it all?) and pays bland lip service to the artistic team. Even worse, he or she might take a stab at summarizing the Big Themes of the play and talk about how they relate to the world we live in. It's all a bit of a waste of space really.

Then there's the production director or playwright's essay about the play. Some directors/playwrights choose to leave this out entirely while others like to spell out their thinking in detail. If the director/playwright has done her job well, then the play should really speak for itself. Program notes that go to great lengths to underline the main themes and metaphors etc. seem pointless to me, though it's always interesting, as an afterthought, to see to what extent the play fulfills the intentions written down in the program.

On the other hand, it can be useful and entertaining to have some pointers as an audience member. This is where dramaturgical research can come in handy. I like to look at tangential material such as paintings and photographs, websites, newspaper articles, poems, essays by philosophers/scientists/sociologists etc that went some way towards informing the production. These "third party" sources provide theatregoers with the tools to make the thematic connections themselves. They also provide some insight into the production process.

Which leads me to my next question: How much of this kind of information should -- or even can -- be delivered in the form of a traditional, stapled, paper program? Different theatre companies are experimenting with alternative ways of imparting information that might help enrich a theatregoer's experience. At Shotgun Players in Berkeley, for example, the lobby is transformed for each production. Before the play, during intermission and afterwards, audience members can wander around the building, enjoying the "exhibition" of fascinating visual and written materials related (albeit often in a tangential way) to the spirit and substance of the play.

Companies are increasingly putting information of this type online, going well beyond the remit of traditional paper-bound program notes. Web-based video/audio interviews with the main artistic collaborators, blogs, production photographs and other materials provide a valuable resource for theatregoers.

The more I think about it, the more programs in the traditional sense of the word, seem obsolete. I like the idea of enabling audience members to upload podcasts with useful information such as interviews with the lead actor and director to listen to on their way to the theatre, or partnering with local radio to deliver this information over the airwaves.

Better still, wouldn't it be great to receive an email from a theatre company the morning of the day I'm going to see a play, with all the useful information mentioned above included in it? That way, I could peruse and listen to the program notes on my laptop (Kindle, iPhone, Blackberry or whatever) at my leisure prior to and after attending the play.

Upon final analysis, maybe it would be a good thing if paper programs disappeared altogether. A simple one-page cast/production team list handed out at the start of the show to those that really want it should suffice. We'd save lots of trees, for one thing. Interns wouldn't have to spend entire days collating and stapling pages together, for another.
January 8, 2009 8:27 AM | | Comments (13)
Here are five upcoming Bay Area arts events to warm the body, mind and spirit during this particularly chilly January:

1. Banana, Bag & Bodice's Beowulf - A Thousand Years of Baggage: The New York-San Francisco theatre collective is commandeering Berkeley Theatre's Roda Stage for a one-night performance of its feisty-clever rock music-tinged homage to Beowulf scholarship on January 8. The company will also be reprising selected highlights from the show the following evening, July 9, at The Famous Chez Poulet Gallery-Cabaret in The Mission.

2. Les Yeux Noirs at Yoshi's San Francisco: On Thursday 14 January, the French gypsy and klezmer music ensemble brings its high-energy, careening sounds to the San Francisco branch of the famous Bay Area jazz establishment. My father tells me that the group's violinists, Olivier and Eric Slaviak, are distant cousins of mine.

3. SF Sketchfest: From January 15 - 31, San Francisco hosts its annual Sketchfest comedy festival. The excellent lineup includes Dana Carvey in conversation with Robert Smigel, Rob Corddry, Janeane Garofalo and one of my fave comedians, Will Franken.

4. The Crucible's Dracul Prince of Fire: The latest "fire ballet" project by Oakland's 10-year-old fire industrial arts organization combines industrial and performing arts to tell the story of the birth of the vampire legend through the eyes of Dracula's father, Dracul. The show runs January 7-10 and 14-17.

5. The Contemporary Jewish Museum's Warhol's Jews Exhbition and Josh Kornbluth's one man show, Andy Warhol -- Good for the Jews?: The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Warhol's series of controversial portraits of famous Jewish public figures such as Sarah Bernhardt, Albert Einstein, and the Marx Brothers. Famed American monologist Josh Kornbluth throws in his two cents about Warhol in a new solo show premiering at the Museum from January 10 - 18.
January 7, 2009 8:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Over the weekend, I was introduced to what strikes me as a powerful and highly entertaining educational tool to help teachers turn elementary and high school kids as well as undergraduates onto Macbeth. Created in San Francisco by two Stanford lecturers - Jeremy Sabol and Greg Watkins -- who teach the so-called Great Books class, This is Macbeth is a terrific, feature-length DVD about Shakespeare's phantasmagoric tragedy of revenge. The film centers on a smartly-written television "interview" between a host -- the 16th century historian Ralph Holinshed (Shakespeare's source for the drama) - earnestly played by Sabol, and various characters from Shakespeare's play.

Over the course of a couple of hours, we watch Holinshed quiz Macbeth, his wife, Banquo and King Duncan about the motivations for their actions, feelings regarding their relationships and the play's turn of events. At one point, for example, Holinshed asks Duncan (played by an affable, blustering Ken Ruta) about his rationale for promoting Malcolm as next in line for the throne over Macbeth. Elsewhere, Holinshed asks Macbeth and Banquo (Mark Anderson Philips and Liam Vincent in a fine double-act) about their reactions to the witches. He also quizzes Lady Macbeth (a coldly poised Allison Jean White) about her lack of scruples on the night of Duncan's murder. The actors all respond in character, but use contemporary language mixed with occasional quotes from the play itself.

Interspersed with the interviews are performances of key scenes from the play. Funny songs composed by Austin Zumbro and spoof TV commercials promoting the likes of "Out, Damn Spot!" stain remover and a Medieval weapons supplier provide a delightfully irreverent way to recap the plot and a simple device to break up the long interview scenes. A ticker tape news bulletin slides across the bottom of the screen throughout the interviews with quotes from famous Shakespeare scholars and philosophers about the play.  There's something slightly odd about the fact that the characters don't seem to know how the plot progresses beyond the present moment in which they're being interviewed, and yet are still able to quote from Shakespeare's text when asked to do so by Holinshed. But it's easy to forgive this quirk because of the movie's overall sense of fun, brilliant casting and seamless pace. The actors perform the scenes in a straightforward yet affecting fashion in simple modern street clothes. In short, This is Macbeth is an unstuffy, entertaining and highly useful educational tool. I'm not in school and I got a kick out of it. Ultimately, This is Macbeth is fun viewing for anyone who's interested in theatre or Shakespeare.

"Greg and I teach together in a residential Great Books program at Stanford (the program is called Structured Liberal Education, and about 100 freshmen take it each year), and we are constantly trying to generate enthusiasm and interest in great works of literature and philosophy," said Sabol in response to an email I sent him after I'd watched the DVD. "We thought we might reach a broader audience with a movie. We wanted to make something that would draw students towards the text, as opposed to replacing the experience of reading or watching the play."

The producers are currently at work on developing a similar DVD for Hamlet, which will hopefully be filmed this Summer, with Romeo and Juliet following suite.
January 6, 2009 9:52 AM | | Comments (1)
It's a strange and uncomfortable thing when you find out about an event months or even years after the fact. Over the weekend, a friend of mine in Los Angeles forwarded me a link from the New York Times. The link led to an obituary of Jason Shinder, (pictured left) who died last April at age of 52. I guess my friend had found out about his passing very belatedly too. I was aghast at the news, feeling an icky combination of belated mourning and annoyance at myself for finding out about his passing so late. So much for our networked world.

Most people know Shinder as a poet. He served as Allen Ginsberg's assistant and went on to author two volumes of poetry, Every Room We Ever Slept In (Sheep Meadow Press, 1993) and Among Women (Graywolf Press, 2001) as well as edit many anthologies including The Poem That Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006).

Other people know Shinder as the director of arts and humanities for the Y.M.C.A. Shinder founded the Y's national arts and humanities program in the 1990s, including the Y.M.C.A. National Writer's Voice, one of the country's largest networks of literary-arts centers.

A small group of people, of which I am one, remember Jason in a third way -- as the head of the Sundance Arts Journalism Institute. As a recipient, from 2002 to 2004, of this terrific but sadly short-lived Sundance Institute program aimed at developing the skills of arts journalists on the west coast, I was frequently in contact with Jason. I never quite found out why this East Coast poetry guy was so interested in working with a bunch of arts journalists on the west coast. He was always rather evasive and never really answered my questions. He ate very little and seemed painfully shy. I had no clue about his life outside of the program, let alone that he was suffering from lymphoma and leukemia.

I owe Jason a great debt for exposing me to so many wonderful people, places and ideas. As a result of winning the Sundance Fellowship, I attended the Sundance Summer Film Lab (the other picture above is of my group at the Lab) the Sundance Festival (twice) and the Sun Valley Writers' Conference. I met and subsequently became friends with many brilliant writers. I found a couple of mentors. I expanded my ideas and goals. None of the above would have been possible without Jason.

I feel like an idiot discovering the news so late. To whom do I send flowers?

Postscript: A couple of days ago, I received an email from someone who found themselves in a similar predicament with regards to Jason's passing. Here's Barbara Hager's email message (thanks, Barbara, for agreeing to let me share your thoughts about Jason on my blog):

Hello Chloe,

I just came across your blog after I googled the name of an old friend and colleague -- Jason Shinder -- and found out, like you, that he had passed away last year. What a disconcerting feeling you get when all you meant to do was see what people from your past lives have been up to all these years later, and then you find out they are gone.

I lived in New York from 1983 - 1989 and became friends with Jason when I took some writing classes at the Writer's Voice at the 63rd St. "Y". After going to readings, a group of us would go out for drinks and talk about writers and literature and poetry all night. Sometimes the authors who had read that evening would join us. It was an amazing era in my life, a hopeful writer from Canada who moved to New York to be around...well writers.

I'll always remember Jason coming to Lexington, a few years later when I was the director of The Writer's Voice of Central Kentucky and Jason was the national director. He wore his signature black pants, shoes and shirt. He also had this damn cell phone -- probably the first ever used in Kentucky -- and he walked around Lexington constantly talking to god knows who in New York. We got more than our share of odd looks from the locals. But I must have thought it was tres cool, because I bought a cell phone that year. It wasn't the slender black one he had, but an ugly grey model as big as a toaster that they called a car phone.

Eventually I returned to Canada with my husband and two American-born kids, but I often think about New York and Kentucky and life in the USA. Strangely, Jason Shinder was a big part of that experience.

All the best,
January 5, 2009 9:58 AM | | Comments (1)
Contrary to what you might think from the title of this entry, this isn't another post about Julie Andrews. The spooonful in the title refers to a fantastic, free online newsletter which introduces recipients to one emerging artist or band each week.

The service, which offers musical tastes of bands and artists working in such genres as alternative, dance, electronic, folk, hip-hop and rock, launched in May 2008. I've been very impressed with it in the couple of months that I've been a subscriber.

What makes Spooonful different to other online music missives is its minimalism. In the way that Google's plain, uncluttered interface drew in Web users when the search engine debuted 10 years ago, Spooonful's offering of just one musical act per issue gives people a chance to digest the music properly. Our attention is fully focused on the one featured artist or band on offer -- we don't feel bamboozled by being offered multiple different things to listen to and read about.

The formula is straightforward: Each week, subscribers receive an email in their inbox comprising of the following information of the week's selected artist or band: their name, where they come from, the musical genre(s) they work in and what other more famous acts they resemble. Then, following an audio link that enables subscribers to hear one of the artist's tracks (as well as download the track and/or create a cellphone ring tone out of it should they wish to go that far) the newsletter goes into some succinct but intelligently-written detail about what makes the act so special and their back story. The bulletin ends with some links to help users find the act elsewhere in cyberspace (eg the artist's website / myspace page / entry on Wikipedia / recording company etc) and tour information.

As a result of Spooonful, I've been turned on to a number of new musical acts lately, one of which, a new wave outfit from New York called The Virgins, I'm keeping a close eye on. The clean look of the website and its easy-to-digest format prevents overload, which makes the service's name perfectly chosen. What I'd like to see is the service expanding to other musical forms like classical, jazz and world music, or perhaps similar services popping up for these other genres elsewhere in cyberspace. Perhaps they exist already in this user-friendly format. If they do, please send the information my way. I'd love to hear more.
January 2, 2009 8:21 AM | | Comments (1)
Macbeth and Project Runway seem like an odd pairing for a double-bill. But yesterday evening, the Berkeley-based theatre company Shotgun Players followed up a New Year's Eve performance of Macbeth with a spoof version of the popular television fashion show.

Mark Jackson's production starring Craig Marker as Shakespeare's over-ambitious thane offsets the play's sick political soul with slick surfaces. The actors all strut about in designer duds, their messy guts spilling onto the on the catwalk-shaped stage both literally and figuratively throughout.

As such, the company's choice of post-show, New Year's Eve entertainment -- "Project Macway" -- made bizarre sense. After a few glasses of champagne, audience members were invited to submit descriptions of their outfits to the evening's MC (one of the actors from the show). The MC then called each wannabe fashion model up to the stage for a sashay down the runway. A panel of judges consisting of Jackson, Shotgun's artistic director Patrick Dooley and the production's costume designer Valera Coble then selected the prize winners. The contestants ranged from a middle-aged woman who flaunted the paradox of Berkeley living by waving the keys to her Prius in the air while caressing the neck of her real fur coat, to a young man in a fedora and sharp suit who called himself Derek Zoolander and proceeded to do an astute impression of the male model of the same name played by Ben Stiller in the fashion industry satire Zoolander.

If "Project Macway" didn't quite see out 2008 with a bang, it at least provided a lighthearted, albeit slightly limp commentary on Jackson's take on Shakespeare's play. If only Shotgun had rustled up a parade of strapping, young Macbeth lookalikes strutting their stuff in sporrans and kilts. Then, I'm certain, the catwalk would have truly come to life.
January 1, 2009 3:34 PM | | Comments (0)

Me Elsewhere


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This page is a archive of recent entries written by lies like truth in January 2009.

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