Category Archives: Thought

Arts and the pandemic

In addition to all the terrible blow of the pandemic and its handling, the separation of artist from audience is a form of damage that the human spirit finds hard to bear. Yes, thankfully, new modes of artistic communication emerge.  But it is not a simple matter.

To put it a different and perhaps more scary way, the struggle of art to express itself and for us to express ourselves through art, to satisfy our own need to creatively communicate, is being suffocated not only by the pandemic, but by our culture giving up on itself.

Theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, literature, poetry and every other human creative endeavor are there to challenge, to open the mind,  when it is so much easier to just not bother. Why open a book? Why act in or go to a play? Learn an instrument, join a band? So much easier to let one’s pod take over a la The Body Snatchers and let creative energies fade.

And to exist in more than the creator’s ego, there must be an audience, a community of those who appreciate what the creator strives to do.  

And here is the great struggle for us in the pandemic. Not just to exist but to do something that satisfies the soul. For most artists that means doing something that affects someone else, that moves the other, the unites people through the act of creation.

We let go of this too easily.  We take its loss too lightly.

Many, many artists, at the same time as fighting for their health and economic survival, suffering these days. Many find outlets, moments of expression and sharing. We must find more.

An uneven evenness

The pandemic, as the word is meant to connote, affects everyone. It is universal, but is not even. It affects the poor, the imprisoned, the aged in nursing homes, pregnant women, and on and on, very different from those who are, relatively speaking, insulated: by class, by race, by where they are in the world at this moment.

Some things have happened for those fortunate enough not to be crushed by the disease or the fallout from it, that are actually new and worth thinking about.

Art in particular changes. The museums,  galleries and theaters of all sizes are closed in most of the world.  There is an evenness that I think nearly all artists feel: We need each other. Art is a relationship between creator and audience, despite the way artists may try to separate themselves from the their audience, thumb their noses, say “I don’t care what you think.”

Yet without the audience the artist creates in a vacuum and communicates to a vacuum.

So we find novel ways . Our need to communicate our creative spirit finds new routes of expression, new avenues to sharing.

 

 

Cult of Laughter

There was a group that used to get together just to laugh. One person started laughing and soon everyone did. What if we all laugh together at 5PM EVERY WEDNESDAY?

Maybe the contagion of laughter could break through our contagion of isolation and dread!

 

 

 

After the first shock…

After the first shock of what has already happened around the world and what is too soon going to happen nearer and nearer to ourselves and friends and family dear to us, there is the realization that this is going to be a long haul.

It quickly became a cliché the 9-11 “changed everything,” and indeed in was a truism that proved to be true and now no one can doubt that this pandemic changes everything.

As a person deeply involved in local theater – running the Hooker-Dunham and planning a big Bloomsday event scheduled for June 16  – I feel the rug pulled from under me.

I know how much worse it is for so many people, so it’s hard to let oneself feel the pain of one’s own  loss, but it is a loss all the same.

So while the losses are worse for some than others, for all of us, are deeply personal.  The sense of suspended animation,  of life-interrupted is with all of us now.

 

Accepting reality; Bloomsday must wait

Most who know me would say that I’ve never been one to accept reality.  The current reality is not really ignorable…and shouldn’t be ignored because of the degree personal careless becomes another person’s nightmare.  Taking social distancing seriously seems to me the least we should all do.

This is rough in many ways. particularly so far as running a theater is concerned. For my little theater – the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery – the economic impact of having expenses that don’t change with no money comi; g in means it’s all loss (rather than  a break-even proposition it’s planned to be), but honestly this impact is the least of it and, compared to the economic pain so many are experiencing now, it’s nothing. I feel for the theaters for whom the damage is far, far greater.  Nearly all the area theaters are non-profits, but have staffs whose only income is their salary.

Getting one’s creative juices flowing by acting, directing, producing shows is something that keeps us all going. While people are coming up with creative on-line solutions, nothing quite makes up for the immediacy of an audience’s interaction with a performance and that just isn’t possible now. Even small rehearsals, just to use the time we now have on our hands, is not advisable as the community level of infection ramps up.

So far I have cancelled everything at the theater, even the two person rehearsals in preparation for my Bloomsday event (June 16). It’s increasingly looking like we will be struggling with this into the summer even in a best-case scenario. We will hold Bloomsday WHENEVER we are able to open again.  Then day of our opening will be our Bloomsday!

 

 

 

 

Oh my god

Is humanity’s existence, human civilization’s existence always precarious?

We – humans – have survived for quite a long time despite our remarkable ability to not learn from our own species’ experience. Or learn too late, which amounts to the same thing.

Now everything is upside down. All the plans and expectations are topsy-turvy.

I’ve always steered away from actually blogging — meaning blogging where I’m not editing before posting. But now, with the world in what is obviously only the beginning of a transformation on the order of science fiction, I might as well just put it out there.

I’ve heard friends who’ve started writing journals. Same thing really. We are all crying, we say, too ourselves, for  ourselves, and it is true.

The earth is shuddering.

We are all at the epicenter.

 

Just coming back to blogging: Bloomsday in Brattleboro is coming

…I’d stopped for a long while, mostly because it seemed more seeds blown into the wind and for the less existential reason that I switched who was hosting my site. So this is the first post with the new host.

For the moment, I’ll call it my Bloomsday Blog, because I think my focus for a bit will be on putting on this “event” at the Hooker-Dunham Theater on June 16, 2020.  Bloomsday in Brattleboro.

For someone like me who likes to read Ulysses and gradually come to understand it, to visualize what Joyce is writing, to have the characters speak for themselves, is incredibly exciting. It brings a whole new dimension to the book.

So I put together a “script.” I say “put together,” not “wrote” because the words are nearly all those of James Joyce, not me.  I’ve chosen a few moments out of the thousands of moments in the book in the hope that they tell a story of Ulysses knowing that there are so many other stories that could be told and so many other ways to tell them.

But the event is first and foremost a celebration of the written word. Here, as elsewhere in the world where Bloomsday is celebrated, it is the spoken word we celebrate.

Ulysses was banned in the United States and England for being obscene or incomprehensible or both.  Distribution was prohibited and copies of the book were burned from its birth in 1922 until Justice Woolsey of the Southern District of New York, ruled its favor in 1933.

Getting a group of actors with strong voices to read a series of excerpts I’ve stitched together has been very exciting.  Ulysses is an amazing novel,  but also one that can be quite intimidating. I’m hoping our show will display enough of its essence that our audience will feel they spent their time well.

So we’re off and running. Tuesday, June 16, is coming up faster than we think here in the middle of Vermont winter.

 

Twitterspeak

We, meaning people who would generally consider things like compassion and empathy more important than power and privilege, need to talk more to each other, and talk more fully, not limiting our conversations to chunks of 140 characters and pleas donations and signing petitions.  Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with any mode we choose, but just that they shouldn’t be limits, that the conversation must go much deeper.

Words, words, words, what’s the matter with words? We need more of words, many more words.  Ah, but who will read them?

 

 

 

Ironic, isn’t it?

As a child, I dreamed of being an old man.  I think lots of kids had dreams like that, fantasies, even reveries.  I think of the first character I played on stage was Giles Corey (an old man who’s a victim of the witch hunt in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). I think of “altacocker,” the Yiddish word I remember hearing my father say and “Der Alte,” what they called the German politician Konrad Adenauer.

Now, as I get older, I dream of being that kid again, of being that kid who dreamed of being an old man.

Also: Added new thought on learning lines/music from actor/musician’s perspective.

 

American Democracy at the Crossroads

American Democracy at the Crossroads

When I was in college many decades ago, I remember being struck by what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about what had emerged as the United States’ “experiment” in democracy. He saw in the U.S. governmental structure an interpretation of “majority rules” that frightened him. He saw the possibility that an electoral majority might so dominate that it could do whatever it wanted. An electoral majority could then abrogate nearly all rights and needs of everyone else.  He foresaw that the “winner take all” aspect of our system could have drastic consequences to those who lost key electoral battles, so that a relatively small electoral majority — a problem amplified yet further by the separation of electors from the popular vote — could so dominate governance that the people as a whole could be largely disenfranchised and a small elite could run roughshod over the needs of the many.

The Constitution attempts to ameliorate this danger with two key elements: The doctrine of the separation of powers, embodied in the three branches of government, and the inclusion of the Bill of Rights.  Recent events, beginning with the overall domination of the Republican Party over such a long stretch of time that the Supreme Court is only marginally an “independent” force, gerrymandering has all but guaranteed control of the House of Representatives, and the removal of all fetters on the ability of wealth to determine electoral power, has left vast numbers of people who live in the United States with nearly no control over the  governmental decisions that most crucially shape their lives.

Decades of struggle for the rights of women, for racial equality, for worker unification in unions, for humane reactions to those whose political and economic necessities have driven them to immigrate without government approval, for liberalization of draconian drug laws, for quality education regardless of wealth, for health care as a human right — all this and much more has been either driven back or is more threatened today than ever before. Some causes have fared better than others, but overall, we, the people, are less free, less able to control our own destinies, have less confidence that our children will have greater opportunities than we had, and on and on, all because of the ability of a small group to leverage its wealth and power into utterly dominating the masses of people.  As bad as this has been for the majority of the American populace, it has been yet more devastating to the most vulnerable members of our society.

Much as people who consider themselves progressives, including me, focus their fear and outrage on Donald Trump. This is, I would say, appropriate, as he is more than merely a symptom of how far our “democracy” has sunk. Each day, he strikes out against all who stand in his way. He goes beyond exploiting a narrow-minded worldview, but actively incites hateful attitudes toward women, towards immigrants, toward environmentalists, towards “liberals,” toward poorer countries of the world as though they were the cause of every person’s miseries.

This is not the democracy “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” but increasingly an oligarchy of extremely wealthy people. Sadly, a very large percentage of the most privileged seem to measure their wealth by increasing the gap of wealth and privilege.  Our democracy becomes still more of a “corpocracy” where the magnates of corporations maneuver to control everything from abortion rights to gun laws to immigration.

The struggle is not over. People of good will continue to fight for human dignity. No, it’s not just about Trump — though he certainly epitomizes and leads the charge for the value system that puts accumulation of wealth and privilege (including the “privilege” to disparage others) first and everything else cast aside. It’s about trying to make U.S. democracy truly democratic.

We all have a lot of work to do.

 

On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on being the “bad guy”

“Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they portray, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.”

 

On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on playing the “bad guy”

 

Theater is filled with characters who are far from nice people. Some are merely obnoxious fools, others terrifyingly violent, dangerous people. At times, dramatists pepper their villains with humor, while others reveal the cold horror of a remorseless psychopath. The depth of the antagonist also varies with the part: Some plays’ antagonists are paper thin, two-dimensional, cartoonish characters. This thinness is often intentional, signifying to both the actor playing the role and the audience that they are not expected to take the character’s evil nature too seriously. Other antagonists are complex personalities; the playwright clearly intends the actor to communicate multiple layers of the character. Antagonists of all types exist on stage because they exist in life. Sad to say, some very destructive personalities account for a great deal of the drama in life.

 

It’s been my pleasure to play a number of classic roles that touch on the dark side of human nature: the vile mistress (Madame) in a gender-bending version of Jean Genet’s The Maids; the megalomaniacal and violently anti-semitic Henry Ford in Camping with Henry and Tom; the murderous playwright Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap; Scrooge in a Christmas Carol (a special case, since he, unlike the others, is able to find redemption in committing himself to atone for his miserable ways); and the hard-hearted boss who fires poor Willie Loman in Death of Salesman. I’m prompted to reflect on playing antagonists as I prepare to play the unloving and unlovable father in the upcoming the Vermont Theater Company’s production of Robert Anderson’s classic family drama, I Never Sang for My Father.

 

My “career” as playing characters that one loves to hate probably got off to its ill-fated start many years ago when I was in an off-off-Broadway political theater group. The artistic director asked the assembled company “who feels they could play a pompous asshole” and I raised my hand and landed the role of a nasty business manager who didn’t give a damn about irradiating his employees. But of all the antagonists I’ve played over the years, I learned the most when I played the corrupt union boss in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. I was hamming it up, chomping on a cigar and imagining myself as Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront.  The director told me to bring my portrayal down several notches. I found making this nasty character more real, more natural, made me much more uncomfortable than my Lee J. Cobb imitation. To become more real, I had to get more in touch with and reveal more of my own malevolence. The director — still a very close personal friend — quoted his own teacher, the Tony Award-winning Lloyd Richards: “Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they perform, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.” It was sage advice. It allowed me to feel I revealed my personal flaws by trying to cover  them up (in this case by exaggerating) than by simply letting the character’s action speak for itself.

In the role for which I’m currently preparing, Tom Garrison in I Never Sang for My Father, I have to understand this unfortunate man. He is not a psychopath or  murderer; he does not have terrible secrets buried in his past. But he is an unfortunate man and a very unfortunate man to have as one’s father. He is not unfortunate because of what has befallen him, though his life has not been easy, but unfortunate in the sense that he denies all that is human in himself and so is unable to feel, unable to relate to his son. Focused on his bitterness about his own childhood and concerned only with his own short-sighted self-interest, he forces his son to make an extremely painful choice.

There are many “traps” in playing a nasty, destructive character. The most obvious, as I’ve mentioned, is overplaying the part and thus turning character into caricature. Overacting is a way of saying: “This isn’t really me. I couldn’t be this awful.” It is a a mode of denial, of distancing oneself from one’s role. Exaggeration can work if the character is intentionally, often for humorous effect, over-the-top, but it seriously detracts from the sense of stark reality that makes drama effective. If the antagonist is not real, is a caricature of wretchedness and evil and not a three-dimensional human being, the role becomes farcical.  Where this is appropriate and done adroitly it can be highly amusing. Where it is inappropriate or done sloppily, it’s simply bad acting.

Many of our finest actors are brilliantly gifted at playing antagonists with barely a muscle tensed or vocal chord raised shrilly. Glenn Close, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino come to mind immediately as actors who can communicate extraordinary violence without the slightest overt sign of their underlying violence. I will never forget George C. Scott’s chilling portrayal as the manager of “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) in The Hustler. Seeing this film in my teens, I loathed this man who destroys the lives of Newman and Piper Laurie. There was not a trace of the exaggeration that makes Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove so hysterically funny. Less known but equally powerful is Ben Kingsley’s tough guy portrayal in Sexy Beast. There’s a scene in which all Kingsley does is to shave and, without betraying any direct emotion, he conveys an intensity of violence that is utterly chilling.

Since playing a role effectively requires seeing the world through the eyes of one’s character, it’s necessary for the actor have to have enough compassion for the character to evoke compassion in the audience. If not, the audience’s interest in the character’s fate wanes and a critical aspect of dramatic tension is lost.

But there are limits to this: the actor must not make the antagonist more decent or misunderstood than the character deserves to be. In so doing the actor can make a negative character so sympathetic to the audience that it turns the tables on the playwright’s intent. In preparing to play Tom Garrison, for example, I’ve found myself finding justifications for his coldness to his son and meanness to his wife. One begins to see the more decent characters as wrong about oneself, as not taking into account why the character is the way he or she is, of judging him too harshly.

Evoking compassion should not mean portraying a character’s destructive actions as acceptable. The despicable remains despicable, the self-serving remains self-serving, the hateful rejection of caring remains hateful. If the humanness and decency of the character is played too strongly, if an intensity of rage does not underlie the character’s actions, the drama falls apart. It’s another form of denial on the actor’s part.

The challenge, then, is to simply to be real. Far more than Scrooge, Bruhl or Ford, Tom Garrison is meant to be real, three-dimensional. He is a father whom many of us, including me, will recognize all too readily: a father so righteously angry, so self-absorbed and egotistical, so dedicated to his own narrow vision of himself and so oblivious to the needs of his own children that he destroys any possibility for intimacy. He wreaks havoc on the lives of those who depend on him most in their most crucial moments of need; In so doing, he destroys himself.

Though Tom is a man without compassion, his portrayal must be compassionate, but not sentimentalized. His character needs to evoke in audience the very feelings he denies in himself. The audience should care about him despite his own fatal character flaws, making his failure to act humanly to his wife, son and daughter all the more poignant.  For that to happen, the character portrayal must be as real, as immediate, as possible. Tom’s inability to allow his own feelings to surface, his unwillingness to reach out to his son despite both their urgent needs to connect  must evoke in the audience not only outrage and frustration, but also compassion and sorrow.

A challenge like this is one that appeals to anyone who’s serious about acting; yet it’s definitely torturous at times. It isn’t always fun to get in touch with how one felt about one’s own father’s inability to be consistently caring or to get in touch with those parts of oneself that are far less human than one would like to believe oneself to be. Suddenly you recoil in horror as you hear yourself say or do something that fits perfectly with the miserable character you’re playing on stage.

There are definitely times when I’ve tired of being being the toxic character in a play, the antagonist that every other character hates and that the audience hates too. When I played a noxious Henry Ford, I began to feel that the other actors were seeing me as though I really were the power-hungry, egomaniacal, anti-semitic person I was playing, And after you’re cast in several such roles, you do begin to wonder what it is about your personality that makes you seem so appropriate to play miserable SOBs!

In the end, though,the pleasure of effectively creating a believable character on stage is worth the agony of getting inside the skin of a very unpleasant person. The world is not made up solely of nice men and women. Hardly. How dull and unreal theater would be if only decent folks were personified there. Where would Macbeth be without Lady Macbeth or Othello without Iago? Would King Lear’s loving daughter Cordelia shine for us if it not for her loathsome sisters? What would Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe be if George and Martha were just a kindly professor and his affectionate wife? Even Cinderella needs her evil step-mother and step-sisters in order to make her a heroine. Betrayal, egotism, hate, envy — the full panoply of inhumanity is as much human nature, sadly, as caring and love. If we are to appreciate the good, we must also understand evil.

 

All that’s easy enough to say, of course. Now comes the hard part: Actually doing it effectively on stage! It’s been highly rewarding to develop the role. If you’re able to come see the show, I hope you’ll find I’ve at least partially achieved my goal of making the character three-dimensional.

 

 

 

Coming up on anniversary of “managing” Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery

Coming up on a year of “running” the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery, a moment of reflection on it.  I can’t “sum up” the experience because each piece of it has been and continues to be unique.

The total experience is overwhelming. So many hopes and fears pass through a theater. (It is, after all, designed for drama and human comedy!)

As manager, I have seen people at the beginning of their lives in theater or poetry or music or art (or burlesque, for that matter) come through and try their wings. And I’ve seen people who have been around for a long time try new things. That’s all pretty exciting.

It seems like most everyone who comes through here feels they got their money’s worth and then some.

So if I the nuisances remain minimal and folks, including me, come in and enjoy themselves, then I’ll be very happy continuing the experiment.