About Me

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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Elegant Simplicity: Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline

Friends, if you missed Fiasco Theater/Theater for a New Audience's production of Cymbeline, which closed at the New Victory Theater last night, you missed something spectacular. Funny, fun, accessible, and engaging, it was nearly pitch-perfect from beginning to end. A joyful example of what theater ought to be.

I knew was in for an oustanding evening from moment Ben Steinfeld took the stage to deliver the play's opening words, a quick prologue bringing us up to speed with the events at rise, and I found myself laughing with the audience - not at what was happening, but in delighted anticipation of what was to come. It is a shrewd director and a capable actor who can wrangle such subtle humor out of the bard's dense text. Steinfeld, it seems is both. He and fellow ensemble member Noah Brody have directed this charming production.

The set was clean and sparse, featuring only two wooden acting blocks and a large trunk, which the actors arranged and rearranged as the scene shifted. It was elegant in its simplicity, a description that could define the spirit of the entire show.

The production is so precise, so expert, so brilliantly executed that it's clear that an incredible amount of effort, love, thought, and skill went into the crafting of the production. Yet its most impressive credit is that that effort was almost entirely invisible. Take, again, the set as an exampe: while the versatility and creativity of the set's three lone pieces is mind-boggling, the loving labors of its creation are reflected only in the program (the particularly inventive trunk by itself has its own designer). On stage, both the set and the graceful transitions between scenes seem as easy and natural as air. It feels almost as though the six actors happened to meet in the park and say to each other, "You know what would be fun? If we put on a play. Here are some boxes - will these do?" The end result was beatifully bare and uncomplicated.

The Fiasco Theater ensemble extended this gorgeous bit of magic beyond the play's stunning production values and on to their own outsanding performances. Each and every one of the cast was charismatic, dynamic, and relatable, engaging with the audience with such aplomb that it seemed as if they were doing absolutely nothing. In the bathroom line during intermission, I heard a snipet of two college-age girls' conversation: one was saying to the other, "You know, when I read the play in school, I thought it was kind of strange. I didn't think the humor would translate to the stage very well, but it really does." No, I thought, it's not the humor that translates, or at least not so easily, it's the actors who are working so hard to make it happen. So hard, it seems, that these two girls did not even realize that they were doing it.

This is as fine a balancing act as any I have seen. The nature of Shakespeare's text creates a curious paradox: on one hand, one of the easiest perils that can befall a performance of Shakespeare is to over-do it. The language is so intricate and poetic, the temptation is to meet it with comparable grandiosity. It is a keen and capable artist who understands that the key to Shakespeare is simplicity: no need to exalt the language, the language will exalt itself. Focus on the narrative, the truth that the story and its characters have to offer, the rest will shine through on its own.

A feat, though, harder to accomplish than it would seem. On the other side of the Shakespearean spectrum, the density of the language certainly makes the story less accessible to modern audiences - much of the subtler nuances are lost and to compensate, it is necessary to draw every character and every situation with particular clarity and precision. But here the pendulum is in danger of swinging back too far in the wrong direction, leading to plays that are, again, over-drawn, relying on caricature and physical shenanigans to communicate the story.

Somehow, though, Cymbeline deftly evaded both this pitfalls, expertly balancing the simultaneous need for simplicity and panache better than any production I have ever seen.

It should also not go without noting that almost every actor played multiple roles and each was so rich and so distinctly defined that never once was I confused as to who was playing whom - and all this without ever lapsing into broadly drawn caricature. The clarity did not even dissolve at the end, when, in a 39 Steps-esque culminating scene, all the characters convened on stage at once, requiring the actors to jump back and forth between their roles with head-spinning speed. The ensemble stepped up to the task with joyful and somewhat cheeky finesse.

Fiasco Theater, with its Cymbeline, has one of the cleverest, funniest, most stylish and engaging productions I have ever seen. This is Shakespeare done right. And they made it look so easy.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Old Times

It's unfortunate and just the teensiest bit ironic that now that I've really dedicated myself to this blog, which is supposed to be an account of what exactly New York means to me, I find it means less to me than ever before.

I don't mean to imply that I find the city meaningless, but I remember a time when I was inspired at every turn; every rumble of every train, every errant piece of garbage in every gutter, held some new significance for me. Someday I will write all of this down I would think to myself, someday when I have time.

Occasionally I did write something down, although it was scattered and sporadic. But, since it's Friday and possibly/probably my last day of work before the temp winds blow a different way, here's a little something from when New York was a constant and overwhelming inspiration.

Sonnet for New York

As Gertrude Stein once pressed her flag against
The pulse of France, so I would like to claim
You as my own: true, I feel at times
Caught in between my collarbone and sternum

In your pocked and mottled sky, in your
Cacophony of streets, a type of beat
That might be home. I wonder if it is
The spark and rumble of your subterrain

That echoes underneath my skin. I have
Cocooned myself between your grooves and cracks
The way a river fondles stone. At times
Like these, broke breathless, gripped beneath

The starry lights and bar fights, I think
That we will be in love like this forever.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Subway Stories, Vol. 3

Earlier this week, I rode the subway with a man named Jeff Boss. I know his name is Jeff Boss because he announced it as soon as he entered my car, along with his candidacy for President of the United States as well as for the United States Senate.

Jeff Boss, according to his flyers - and also his website, which you can view here - witnessed his sister-in-law, a top-ranking NSA official, arrange the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. Although he didn't understand the meaning of her conversations at the time, after the attacks it all became clear. After narrowly escaping his own death by arriving late to his new job (presumably given to him by the same government-connected family members?) at the WTC on Sept. 11th, he survives to tell his story, only to be thwarted by the NSA at every turn.

There are two obvious options here: either he's telling the truth, or he's not.

As I watched him from across the car, debating passionately with a young man who regarded him with patience and skepticism, I could almost see these two options stretching out in front of me, two separate but parallel stories, both passing through the same plane of reality in which Jeff Boss stands on a New York City subway car desperately clutching his flyers and his truth, while the world around him dismisses him.

Consider the first story: Jeff is telling the truth. A few days or weeks or months before September of 2001, he happens to stumble upon his sister-in-law - who actually IS an high-ranking government official - on a very confidential phone call, during which she actually IS helping plan or facilitate the terrorist attacks on behalf of the U.S. government. How he happened to simply stumble upon such a sensitive conversation, let's not ask. Mistakes get made, Sister-in-Law screwed up. She doesn't know how much he heard or understood, but she can't take any risks. Panicked, she calls a colleague, or maybe a superior. A few more calls are made, and Jeff has a new job that assures his presence at the WTC at the time of the attacks. But, as fate would have it, he is running late that day and is spared. Why doesn't the government just try and kill him again? Let's not ask that question either. Maybe now, if he had already told somebody what he knew, his death would look too suspicious. Maybe Sister-in-Law, wracked with guilt, steps in and says look, we don't have to kill the poor guy. It's easy enough to discredit him. Whatever the case, now no one will every believe what Jeff Boss - who is not crazy - knows unquestionably to be true.

Or, there is the more likely story, the one I choose to believe: Jeff Boss IS crazy. Yes, he does have a family member (maybe his sister-in-law, maybe not) with high-ranking connections, but their worst offense is a little nepotism - they happened to pull some strings and get Jeff a job when he needed one, working at the World Trade Center. Now maybe this is a better job than Jeff deserves, and maybe his family member's neck is sort of on the line for him, or maybe Jeff is just sort of a notorious deadbeat, but whatever the case, he is told sternly and insistently that he must not be late on his first day. So of course, he is late. And as it happens, his irresponsibility saved his life. Overwhelmed with survivor's guilt, he tries to give meaning to what happened. What kind of asshole is late on his first day of work? he thinks. And why was that asshole spared? From the depths of his incomprehension and shame, he creates this delusion.

The fascinating thing about these two stories is that one or neither of them might be true, but both of them cannot be. These stories define two entirely separate, both somewhat sad, worlds. And I can never be sure which one I live in. I can guess (and I have), but I can never know for sure.

A world in which the nation I believe I live in is ultimately good and free and democratic is concretely, quantifiably different from a world in which this same nation would, like a dictatorship in a captive country, murder its own people to get and retain power. And yet, from my vantage point, they both look exactly the same.

Maybe this is where I get a little too existential for my own good, because here is where I start thinking about God. With God, like with Jeff Boss, we have two options: either It exists or It doesn't. And a world without God is an entirely, unequivocably different world from a world with God. And yet, both look the same to me. I've often wondered, how is that possible? And the question has bothered me. Yet here is Jeff Boss on the subway, showing me how it is.

And what does that mean? What do I do with that, if anything at all? I don't know, but there it is, standing in front of me with a flyer in its hand.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Honey Brown Eyes

Honey Brown Eyes, presented by the Working Theatre and now playing at the Clurman at Theatre Row, is a thoughtful, cogent, human work by a deft hand; Stefanie Zadravec's play is tight and well-structured as it examines war in microcosm, lending a specific and surprisingly familiar face to its extreme cirumstances.

The play takes place in Bosnia, circa 1992, and at its core are a brother and sister living in the thick of the violent conflict that gripped their nation during that decade. Set in two different kitchens, the first act centers upon Alma - the titular Honey Brown Eyes - in her home in Visegrad and the second upon her brother Denis in Sarajevo.

The story begins just as the devastating ethnic cleansing of Bosnia's Muslim population has started, and the play's opening finds Alma looking down the barrel of an assault rifle. As it turns out, though, she knows the soldier wielding it. Although war has sharply divided them into opposing sides, the soldier, Dragan, once played in a band with Alma's brother Denis. Denis himself is absent, estranged from his sister. He has left to join the resistance, disowned by Alma as a result. Alma and Dragan are left to grapple with their relationship to each other and to Denis then and now, in the light of the terrible fate she is now facing and the role he is to play in it.

In Act II we meet the man whose memory hovers like a shadow over the kitchen of his sister in Visegrad. The second-act kitchen belongs to an older woman named Jovanka in Sarajevo - alone since her daughter and grandson left, attempting flee Bosnia as refugees - living out the rest of her days as comfortably as the violence surrounding her will allow. Into her kitchen stumbles Denis, himself a refugee, fleeing unnamed deadly forces outside Jovanka's door.

Honey Brown Eyes isn't so much about war as it is its effect on relationships, an examination of how they strengthen or strain under the bloody duress of the atrocities happening outside the front door. Jovanka tells Denis, "War teaches you the value of an onion"; the same could be said for what it teaches about the value of a relationship. The sight, smell, and taste of the onion is heightened by the weight of the war. So is the significance of every relationship, every human interaction heightened. Its texture, its meaning, is drawn into sharp focus, its importance elevated by the immediacy of war's terrors.

Still, despite the humanity that Zadravec bestows upon her characters, the play hits a note of unbelievability. The story could take place in any war, anywhere, and the play strains mightily to make that clear. It does so, though, at the expense of specificity that would have provided clarity and depth. Exactly what Alma faces outside her door, if she is "taken away" as she is meant to be, is unclear. Of course, we sadly know enough to imagine: death camps, perhaps? Execution? Torture and rape? Possibly, probably, some combination of the above. But we never find out for sure. All we hear from Alma of the terror she has witnessed is a quick, teary mention of tragedy; later Dragan tells another character ominously, "You don't know what they would have done to her," but this is all we learn from him. The vagueness of what might become of her does not undermine the story in the sense that it's not about horrors that await her, it's about her relationship to Dragan and her absent brother (and husband and child) in the face of them. Still, without specificity, the danger and the fear that drives the play becomes less immediate, less real. (This issue, it should be noted, is considerably relieved in the second act, as Denis and Jovanka confess their stories to one another in heartbreaking detail).

Compounding the problem is the miscasting of Edoardo Ballerini as Dragan. Despite his age and military position, as Dragan Ballerini emanates an aura of childishness and innocence. And understandable choice; he is, ultimately a sympathetic character and the sweet naivete he radiates makes his shocking final interaction with Alma all the more disturbing. However, the pendulum swings too far in the other direction: I never fully believe that he is capable of using the big gun he carries. For the relationship, and the act as a whole, to work, the audience must be kept on edge, always a little in fear of Dragan, despite the instinct to trust him, unsure of his real intentions.

Under Erica Schmidt's direction, the play moves easily and fluidly for the most part, although a few beats - mostly transitions and set changes - felt sloppy; greater precision would have added power to the production as a whole.

Despite these small concerns the play, the play shined. I have to admit, I had been looking forward to seeing Honey Brown Eyes ever since I heard an excerpt of another work by Zadravec (Electric Baby) read at an event at the Women's Project. The excerpt intrigued me, and I couldn't wait to see something more substantial. Honey Brown Eyes did not disappoint. It's a rare treat to see a play structured so well, that moves so adroitly through the narrative, bringing its many and varied characters together as easily and obviously as if they were interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Continuing this week's apparent theme of exciting storytelling revelations/revolutions:

So, this may be old news to everyone but me, but I was recently briefed on the ending of a video game called "Call of Duty," which I guess is a big deal as far as video games go? This particular version was called "Modern Warfare," as I'm sure that will mean something to someone (although it isn't me).

This is what happens when you beat the game, as it was explained to me:

"It was weird. You, like, see yourself get shot and and then you watch the rest of your unit die. Then, when it goes back into the game, the controller gets really shaky - you know, like, really difficult to operate - and you have to kill all the rest of the bad guys before you die. And that's the end."

Now, the last time I beat a video game was my freshman year of college which was - oh god - almost ten years ago now. It was something called "Metroid Fusion," and I got really into it while "assistant stage managing" a play that semester. Or, as it was better known to me, "bringing my roommate's Gameboy and sitting quietly in the back of the house during rehearsals so that I can earn my 'tech' credit and pass my theater classes." Before that, the last video game I got really excited about was Super Mario Brothers.

Needless to say, I'm not really up-to-date on the gaming world. These days, my understanding of it is almost exclusively restricted to the few times I've happened to see my friend's husband play when I've visited her house. I have been told that games have become exponentially more sophisticated, and, indeed, my friend's husband's games look very, very complicated.

But while the game I played in college was worlds beyond the Super Mario Brothers of my childhood, the last time I had any personal interaction with a video game, the basic story structure appeared to have remained the same: a sort of choose-your-own-adventure-style plot, in which you died (or lost) until you survived and won.

There's something about the notion that you can win the game but your avatar, presumably the hero, can still lose in a big way that I find incredibly intriguing. The idea of a video game that ends in tragedy seems rather revolutionary.

Maybe this idea has been in circulation for a while, I don't know. But whenever it developed, it was revolutionary.

Because while I know that video game narratives have evolved considerably over the years, this scenario creates space for possibilities that I have never considered before. As complex and imaginative as these stories have become, it seems to me that the narrative has always been in service of the game.

Now, it occurs to me that the game can be in service of the narrative.

I'm not saying that this version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a video game Hamlet, but I guess I'm saying maybe something could be? I find the possibility exciting. And with interactive devices like the Wii and the Kinnect, the audience (and yes, I am using the term audience rather than player) is able to engage with a story in a new and unique way. The possibilities of the technology are suddenly clear to me: this isn't just something that uses certain storytelling constructs in order to make a game accessible - or at least, it doesn't have to be. This could be an entirely new, interactive, storytelling medium.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why I Hated Die Hard (Or: Evolving Genres in Contemporary Culture)

That's right. I hated Die Hard.

and it's not that I don't love a good mindless action thriller. A perfect example: the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, which I caught this week and loved.

It should be noted here that I have not seen the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, so what follows is in no way a comparison to, nor a commentary upon the 1974 film. In fact, as far as I can tell, the original looks much better than the remake. But the remake was available for instant streaming on Netflix and the original was not, so the remake is how I spent the evening last Tuesday. And, since I have almost no knowledge of the original film, for the purposes of this post I am treating the remake as simply a new movie, completely autonomous of its 1974 counterpart.

So, I loved The Taking of Pelham 123 for what it was - easy action-packed junk entertainment, and yet I hated Die Hard, which is essentially the same thing. No, not only that, Die Hard is the mother of all action thrillers, a paragon of the genre. So what's my problem?

The two movies are actually remarkably similar: both involve dangerous men who take a group of people hostage for a ransom, and despite the efforts of police and officials, our heroes are the only people who can hope to stop them. Still, there are a few notable differences between Die Hard and Pelham 123 which, while they don't necessarily determine the quality of either of the two movies, did influence my relative enjoymement of both.

To begin with, take our two Noble Heroes: In Pelham, we have Walter Garber, the fated MTA dispatcher who goes toe-to-toe with the Bad Guy, and in Die Hard there is the iconic John McClane in all his "Yippee-ki-yay motherf&#$%er" glory.

Garber is a somewhat reluctant hero; while he willingly takes on the responsibility of the crisis once it is thrust upon him, it is clear he is not by nature an thrill-seeking defender of justice. As he describes to Ryder, the abductor of the train in question, how he slowly moved from maintenance work for the MTA up to assistant chief transportation officer, it is clear that here is a man who has worked quietly and steadily without much fanfare or fuss. What's more, Garber has a somewhat checkered past: he has been demoted from assistant chief transportation officer to dispatcher, pending investigation into an a bribe he allegedly took. He later admits that the allegation is true, having used the money to pay for his children's college tuition.

He is an unlikely hero, in stark contrast to the righteous, gunslinging persona of John McClane. It's not that McClane's past is utterly untarnished; he has his share of character flaws, and his marriage is in shambles because of it, but he is clearly and ostensibly the Good Guy. He runs bravely and recklessly toward danger and every turn, constantly putting the safety of others before his own, and taking down the Evil Terrorist above all of it. All this is not to say that McClane is one-dimensional, or even more one-dimensional than Garber. That's beside the point. It's only that his role within the larger narrative is more archetypal, more clear-cut.

This difference on it's own would be just a difference, a casual and unimportant observation. It's made interesting, to me at least, by the way these personalities interact with their respective Bad Guys. Both Baddies are initially suspected to be terrorists with radical political motives, but in each case, it is quickly revealed that the men are working for their own, selfish purposes. In Die Hard, the story of Hans Gruber (the delicious Alan Rickman. Never has international terrorism looked so attractive) more or less ends there. But for Pelham 123, the Ryder's story goes deeper, and the audience knows it. References to a former life, the way he intently watches the Dow Jones during his attack, his inexplicable volatility and rage toward the Mayor and the establishment, and strange way he's identified with Garber, all point to something else, something more going on here. Who is this man, and what does he really want?

Then, at the last minute, ah! It's all made clear. He's not after the ransom money at all, he's manipulating the stock market! He's a former Wall Street man! Fresh out of ten years in prison for massive finance-related crimes that I don't understand!

Now our hero's struggle becomes a bit more clear. His life runs a strange parallel with the villian's. Both have committed crimes, have taken money that was not theirs in an attempt to get a little further than honest work - exemplified by Garber's life - will allow. And both suffer greatly (and, depending who you ask, unfairly) the consequences of their actions. In this light, Garber's selfless choice to put himself at risk for the greater good becomes redemptive, adding color to his final showdown with Ryder.

It's this "ah-ha!" moment that was missing for me in Die Hard, which, by contrast is relatively straightfoward: Gruber is a rogue terrorist agent after a great deal of money, we learn that almost immediately. He's unscrupulous, cold-blooded, and willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. McClane attempts to stop him as the stakes grow higher, until finally, Gruber falls from the top of an exploding skyscraper to his fiery death.

"I kept expecting a big reveal," I tried to explain to my dad, in response to his shock and dismay that I hadn't liked the movie. "I kept waiting to find out what Gruber was really about." He looked at me with total derision and incomprehension. "He's an evil terrorist, and the good guy beats him. That's what he's about."

It's true, and there's nothing wrong with that. This kind of spectacular unambiguous showdown between good and evil is impressive in its own right. But I wanted more. And it's not that Pelham is better, or more layered - they're both meant to be enjoyed on a visceral, uncomplicated level. It's that I enjoyed The Taking of Pelham 123 more because this plot structure is what I'm used to. This kind of use of character revelation to propel the climactic action sequence is more and more prevalent, and the evidence is how much I wanted it, expected it in Die Hard.

Is it possible that Die Hard, which I was too young for when it came out in 1988 and didn't see until well out of college, was less than gripping to me because, 22 years later, we have moved on from this particular storytelling structure? I wonder if this marks a cultural shift in our understanding of the genre.

It reminds me of when I watched Rear Window and Disturbia back-to-back to compare the way to very different movies made in very different eras dealt with essentially the same subject matter: a housebound young man, bored and restless, has taken to spying on his neighbors when he begins to suspect he may have witnessed a terrible crime.

I hated Disturbia. It was a hyper-sensational bloodbath with no plot, no point, and even less redeeming social or artistic value. Even so, it didn't stop me from remarking on how our interpretation of suspense has evolved over the years. Although many would mourn the move away from the slower, more carefully nuanced build that Hitchcock employed in Rear Window, I don't. There are exciting ways for manipulating how a contemporary audience understands suspense too (although Disturbia does little to explore them); it opens up new creative possibilites, and that excites me.

And so I wonder if we are witnessing a similar pardigm-shift in the action-thriller genre. To witness such a shift as it occurs is wildly intriguing; I wonder what changes in our culture of storytelling will follow.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

August Wilson's Place in School

Earlier this week, David Snead, the Waterbury, Connecticut superintendent of schools ordered Waterbury’s arts magnet high school to stop its production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone because of the appearance of the N-word in the script.

While I understand the superintendent's decision to stop the production, it has me deeply upset. Of course the word should be categorically repudiated; it should never be appropriate in conversation, nor ever regarded casually. But for these reasons exactly, I think it is so important that this show be performed, even (perhaps especially) on the high school level. Mr. Snead, for all his well-meaning attempts to protect his students, and his community at large, from such a hateful epithet, has ironically done so at the expense of a real understanding of the power of language and the importance of narrative.

As one who has spent my life in reverence of these two things, language and narrative, I find that incredibly alarming.

I am not African American, and I recognize the fact that, as much as I can sympathize, I cannot possibly fully understand the weight of the word. Still, I hope that does not keep me from acknowledging, to the best of my abilities, the centuries of hatred, bigotry and oppression bound up in it. It is the recognition of its ugliness, not a casual indifference to it, that makes me as passionate as I am.

I am, and always have been, in awe of the magnitude of language, both of it the power it yields when wielded well, and the impotence it creates when wielded poorly. Rough and inexact as it might be, it is the only way to connect that ethereal thing caught inside my flesh with that in yours, the only thing that keeps us all from becoming so many satellites, spinning helplessly inside our own orbits.

Language is the sharpest tool we have available to us, and I’m not the first to say “the pen is mightier.” But, just like an untrained joker playing with a sword - be careful with that, or you’re going to put your own eye out.

Here is a story to illustrate what I mean. It’s not of the word in question, but of another inappropriate and hateful word, also often spoken or spoken of in fearful, hushed tones: the C-word.

The C-word is not the same as the N-word; it doesn’t mean quite the same thing, nor does it have the same deep-seated history of hate attached to it. But, as a woman I have more experience with it and a more personal connection to it, and so this is the word I have a story about. And I think it serves to illustrate a universal point.

So, needless to say, I do not like the C-word, or, at least, the attitude with which it is regarded in our culture; it rankles my feminist sensibilities. It troubles me that the worst words we have for one another as women in one way or another refer to our sex or sexuality. It suggests a fear and loathing of female sexuality that, frankly, as a society we should be beyond. And at the worst of all of them, for some inexplicable reason, is the C-word.

Funnily enough, though, I often hear, even among my thinking, considerate, female peers, the following sentence: "I don't want to say it, but I'll say it. I NEVER use this word, but I'll use it for her. That woman is a..." well, you know what.

I understand the logic of not saying the word, of abhorring what it stands for and refusing to allow it to enter your vocabulary. I also understand the idea of reclaiming the word, of attempting to strip it of its power through new context and use. (After all, why can we call a man a prick or a dickhead with relative impunity, but it is so unspeakably awful to call a woman the other thing?)

But to halfheartedly do both - to save the word for very special occasions, for use only on the worst offenders - is to bestow power without understanding why, and ultimately give strength to its ugly meaning, and to those who would use it hatefully.

My point is simply this: words can be powerful, and to wield that power with no knowledge of its history and social context is to potentially add fuel to the fire. And the N-word, whether we like it or not, is a very, very powerful word, so we must be very, very careful.

I know that Mr. Snead is only, understandably, trying to exercise that care. The New York Times reports that, “According to the newspaper... Snead said this week that educators should not do anything that might encourage people to use the word.” However, it strikes me that fearing that watching an August Wilson play will encourage people to use the N-word is a bit like worrying that asking a depressed friend if he’s suicidal will put the idea in his head.

That is to say, it won’t, and avoiding the uncomfortable conversation will only make it worse.

We are coming up on a generation for whom the struggle for civil rights in America (and thus, this word) will mean something entirely new. And after them will come a generation for whom it will mean even something else. It is of vital importance that we continue communicate the gravity and significance of that struggle, lest we re-ignite old flames of hatred.

Textbooks and history lessons are fine communication tools, but I honestly and passionately believe that the most important instrument we have to ensure that our collective history is remembered and appreciated is our stories. That is why I do what I do.

And that's also why I believe it's more than important for these teens to have the opportunity to perform and appreciate the work of August Wilson, a master storyteller - it's necessary. More necessary for them, our youth, perhaps, than any other group.

Through lessons and books we learn the facts of our history, through our stories we learn the truth. Our stories provide us with an emotional connection to the past, to people and experiences that we would otherwise never know, never fully understand.

What's more, as I understand it, the drama teacher at this school approached the performance of the play with extreme sensitivity and respect. She sought approval not only from the school’s principal, but from the parents of the students involved, for whom she actually went through the trouble of having the play read aloud. She even received approval of the production from a former N.A.A.C.P president. Lessons were planned for the students to provide the appropriate history and context of the racism that is experienced in the play, as well as talk-backs and other post-performance discussions and Q&A's. The rehearsals were even open to the participating students' parents. I cannot think of a better, more visceral way of understanding our history and our society.

I’m told that the Waterbury Board of Education discussed the situation yesterday, although I can’t find any information on the outcome of the meeting. I hope that the decision was reconsidered. If it’s not, I worry it will set a terrible precedent for American high schools. August Wilson is not only one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th century, he also gave a vibrant and resonant voice to a group of people and experiences that have otherwise marginalized, oppressed and ignored by the American theater tradition. Yes, Wilson uses a terrible word in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. But he does so with all the understanding and gravity and context we that we can ask for, that we can hope to communicate to future generations. We cannot lose him; we cannot keep him out of our schools. It would be an unspeakable blow not just against the arts, but against our past and against our future.

UPDATE (1/20/11):

The production will go on as planned.

Additionally, here are some links to more excellent commentary about the situation:

Leonard Jacobs' blog on the Clyde Fitch Report.
Howard Sherman's comments on the American Theater Wing blog.
Howard Sherman's wonderful letter to the Waterbury Board of Ed.

And the original post in the New York Times Artsbeat Blog.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drums and Strings

I'm standing on a subway platform, listening to the steady, rabid beat of drums - a busker somewhere further down, obscured from my view. I notice without really noticing a melody underneath the drumbeat, a shy, thin strain on strange strings. Barely audible, but persistent.

For a moment it sounds like the two are keeping time together, and the observation calls the string melody into sharp focus. I listen closely. A few refrains more and it's clear the synchronicity was accidental. The music is not playing along with the drums, but struggling mightily against it.

The enormity of the struggle is extraordinary; the drums overwhelm the entire platform. The situation suddenly strikes me as utterly bizarre. What would compell someone to compete against such immensity of sound? But then again, what other options are there? Clear out whenever a more ostentatious act rolls in? Tap the player on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me, you probably couldn't hear me on the other side of the platform, but my music just can't compete with yours, so if you don't mind..."? Appeal to some imaginary authority for justice? I move closer to the source. It's a funny instrument that I recognize but can't name, played by a woman who hits each string with some sort of hammer. She's a small, thin, Asian woman - middle-aged, I guess, neither old nor young. Her bony body hunches over her instrument, eyes downward in deep concentration. I imagine her terrible battle against the rhythmic Goliath, bending forward, fighting to hear her own music through the roar of the drums, silently cursing with every note. Then I correct myself: she's probably just tuned it out, depending on how long she's been here.

A subway train comes through (not mine), taking even the ceaseless drumming with it. The wind off the train knocks the woman's music off its perch and she struggles - unsuccessfully - to replace it without breaking from the music.

My train still has not come, so I move toward the other end of the platform in search of the drummer. When I find him, he is in his element, flipping his drumsticks in the air and keeping time with easy expertise. You can't even hear the string music from here. Does he even know she's there?

I want to claim allegience to the woman and her strings, but the percussion is exciting and intoxicating. He moves effortlessly from beat to beat, his eyes soft, his muscles tensing and relaxing as the rhythm moves through them.

He must be improvising, mustn't he? It seems impossible, the beat is so crisp, so unwavering. I wonder what it must be like to create rhythm like that. To be so at one with it, so alive within it that the question of which drum to beat next and when becomes irrelevant, the answer is so obvious, like one's the next breath. It must be excruciatingly wonderful.

The drummer pauses to rearrange his kit, replacing one type of drum with another. For a second, before the divine cacophany resumes, you can hear the woman's tinny strains again, sounding very far away.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Arizona Tragedy

I generally avoid getting up on political soapboxes; it's a bit wobbly up there and I get vertigo. But I'm going to say something about the shootings in Arizona, because I think it's important. I'm going to say it briefly, and I'm going to keep my feet as close to the ground as possible.

A lot of mud has been slung over the past few days about the language and political climate that preceded Saturday's terrible events. In fact, the first I learned of what happened was in the context of an article condemning Palin for her now-infamous map.

It's frustrating. This blog from the Village Voice, for example, blames "rightbloggers" for using the tragedy to paint themselves as victims at the hands of the left. But couldn't the same be said of those who have used the tragedy, in a sense, to condemn the right for their rhetoric?

Jon Stewart, always considered and articulate, makes a good point in his speech that I'm sure by now we've all seen: we have to be able to understand the difference between our political opponents and our enemies. There is a difference.

On the blog Parabasis, Isaac Butler argues that conflating the ideas of opponent and enemy is strictly conservative problem:

This is not really a bipartisan issue. There is a difference between the rhetoric of Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck. There is a difference between the level of institutional courting and entrenchment of left wing loonies and right wing loonies.

I take his point, but even so, I say it IS a bi-partisan issue. Yes, the boderline violent, gun-culture rhetoric that has gotten everyone so amped this week is much more the domain of the right than the left. And, yes, I do think such language is inappropriate, and the events of this week highlight the fact that there is a terrible reality attached to these words that is often considered too lightly.

But, while there IS difference between Glenn Beck's rhetoric and Keith Olbermann's, there are similarities, too. It seems like any time I tune into any program, conservative or liberal, or engage in any conversation, or, really, take in any kind of media in any form, somebody is trying to tell me that the other side is evil. \

Republicans are apparently unfeeling, war-mongering, gun-toting, money-grubbing, tar-hearted individuals who will do anything to make sure they keep what they have and everyone else can rot. And Democrats... well, I'm not sure what, specifically, the Republicans like to say about us Democrats (as I keep mostly liberal company), but I know it's just as bad. But, honestly, could it be much worse?

It all creates a climate of Us vs. Them, of Good vs. Evil. And all this within the borders of our own nation, a nation built on the the idea that political discourse and differing idealogy will only make us stronger.

This kind of vitriolic side-taking and blame-dumping is not only fostering a climate of anger and hatred, it's unproductive. We, as a government AND as a people, are ignoring simple facts and common sense, so blinded are we by the larger objective of Opposing The Other Side.

Let's consider a few simple facts from this week's horror:

1. Loughner purchased his weapon COMPLETELY LEGALLY.

2. A federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 prohibited the sale of gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds; Loughner's held 30 rounds.

3. Loughner was finally taken down only when he paused to reload - after 30 rounds.

I'm not a big gun person. I'm actually not 100% sure what a "magazine" is, or a "round" for that matter. (Is it a bullet? Is it a series of bullets? Don't laugh). What I do know is this: had this particular piece of gun-control legislation still been in place, Loughner would have only been able to fire ONE-THIRD as many shots from his legal weapon before being taken down. Would one-third of the lives that were lost that day, then, have been saved?

I don't know, of course, no one can. And while I am in favor of gun control as strict as the most flexible interpretations of the 2nd Ammendment will allow, and I DO think that lives would have been saved this week with more rigorous restrictions, I'm not here to make that point. I'm here to ask the question: why aren't we talking about it?

This is the kind of dialogue that this tragedy should foster: How did this happen? How can it not happen again?

It's not even simply the question of whether or not that particular assault weapons ban should have been allowed to expire, or whether it should be reinstated - although those are good questions. There's also the larger question: How on earth was a mentally unstable 22-year-old able to to get a hold of this gun at all? Is there a way to be a little more thorough, a little safer with how we distribute firearms? Is there a way to prevent this from happening again?

To my knowledge, Loughner didn't have any priors on his record that would flag him in a background check, so maybe the answer is no. No, he snuck through the system somehow, these things are bound to happen. (As Stewart put it: Crazy will find a way.)

I just want to know why nobody is asking the question.

Sadly, precious little is being said about this event as it relates to gun control. Long-time gun-control advocate and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy told the Huffington Post, "I know what I can get passed and I know what I can't get passed. And if I wanted to get something symbolic -- and we are going to reintroducing the assault-weapons ban and that's wonderful -- it won't go anywhere. It won't even get to committee."

Creating a stronger, safter society as a result of this tragedy - a thing that might make meaning out of these untimely deaths - is being ignored because that's not what we as a nation have decided that it's About.

The Palin angle, that should be a side story at best. No, I'm not a big fan of her gun-saturated language, but as The New Republic pointed out, people - normal, sane, rational people - use gun-related metaphor and imagery all the time. It's not the story here.

But instead of considering the actual story, we're caught in this cycle of political impotence, so preoccupied with hurling invective from Left to Right that we can't stop to discuss the real issues, even when it is so devestatingly demonstrated to us that real human lives are at stake.

That's all I have to say for now. I'm feeling a bit woozy.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Year's Reflections

As the first week of 2011 draws to a close, I figured I may as well hop on the blog-train passing through and post my reflections on the passing year.

I've seen quite a few people use this space recount their favorites of the numerous shows they saw this year. That's not going to be me. I saw more shows this year than any other year I've spent in the city and it still doesn't seem nearly enough. I managed to actually see two Broadway shows (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and In the Heights) before they surprised me with their closing, a feat I had never achieved before. I made a point to check out In the Footprint because, you know, I love the Civilians. And I was saved from lamenting the Little Foxes by an unexpectedly and unnecessarily generous gift (one of the best gifts and best theater experiences I have ever received, not because it was good (though it was) but because it made me inspired).

I've reconciled myself to the fact that I just don't have the time or money to see everything I want to. But that still doesn't ease the pangs of having missed Gatz, Brief Encounter, Scottsboro Boys and Our Town. Among others.

Others have looked back to tally their professional achievments. That's also not going to be me. It's not that I have too few to speak of, although that certainly could be argued. No, it's because a seismic shift in priorities took place this year, and in the wake of it it's difficult, if not impossible, to measure my life or my year in terms of What I Accomplished.

For a long time I've been gripped by the feeling that I need to do something, a sensation that has not diminished with time. If anything, in fact, the vice has only tightened around me with every year. Not knowing, though, exactly what that thing is (but suspecting it's theater-related), in reality that impulse has translated to figuring out what I want to do. And then doing it. Along those lines, most of my resolutions for the past five years have resembled something along the lines of, "find direction, motivation, and inspirataion."

[And let's just get the irony of a director in perpetual search for direction out of the way now: ha! There.]

I've been resolving to get at these things for so long that it sometimes comes as a surprise to remember that my New Years' resolutions didn't always look like this; the switch happened sometime in college.

Growing up, I was always highly academic. Shy and booksmart, obsessed with ideas, and far better at expressing myself through pen than through spoken word. Although as early as 7th grade I considered myself a devoted bride of the theater, a career in academia would have probably been a more natural fit. Until, about halfway, through college, something went out of me. Some motivation or fire was gone. I didn't want to write anymore, I didn't want to think. I wanted to do. I was tired of big ideas, I wanted big actions. I was restless. I wanted to get to work, somehow, on all the things I'd been thinking about for so long.

In hindsight this restlessness, and the ensuing need to make effective use of my life, has been a result of many long years of waiting. As I mentioned before, I committed myself by the tender age of 12 to a life in the theater and never looked back. Why? Well, I loved theater, for one. I mean, I truly loved it, more than anything else I had ever done. But for another, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was going to spend the first 18 years of my life spending the majority of my days doing something that had been decided for me and over which I had no control - that is, school. Now I was a good student, and I didn't mind going to school but I studied well and worked hard, so that I could spend the subsequent years doing something I really wanted to do - something good, in every sense of the word.

Unfortunately, when you sign on to a life in the theater, well, maybe someday you'll live that dream, but first you're signing up for a lot more stuff that you don't particularly want to do - not to mention a lifetime of self-doubt, of wondering whether you really should be doing it in the first place. The intricacies of this choice, of course, eluded my 12 year old self, and by the time I figured it out, I was in too deep.

So there I was, out of school, done with thinking, ready to get into the nitty-gritty of whatever it was I was supposed to do with my life. The only trouble was, I still had no idea how to accomplish it, or, really, what exactly "it" was to begin with.

I was so distraught that I even directed a play about it in 2008. Called What Work Is, and inspired by a book of poems by the same name by Phillip Levine, the play was an attempt to understand the relationship between work and identity, especially when so many us spend the majority of the hours of our lives doing jobs that, I'm sure, if asked, we would say does not define us. How does that (pardon the pun) work?

What Work Is was not my most successful endeavor, if you measure success as well-constructed, engaging, well, good play. It was my first attempt at "ensemble creation" and it had it's ups and downs. But it was the most personally cathartic creative experience I've ever had. I learned truths about the nature of work that I could have never expected.

Some of the most moving revelations for me (and, incidentally, some of the strongest material in the play) came from the poem The Right Cross. From it, I learned that there's work, yes, but then there's work, and there's also work. There's the kind of work that you do because you have to - the kind I do a lot - and there's the kind of work that is so exciting, it feels like play. That's the kind I suppose I aspire to.

But then there's also a kind of work that you truly devote yourself to - both the pleasure and the pain. Work that extends beyond the polarizing concepts of work and play. This is the work that fills your entire being, a union between body, mind, and soul. It is work that overcomes you with a sense of purpose and perfection when you surrender yourself fully to it.

With that kind of work, I think, it doesn't matter what the work is - what really matters is the surrender to it. Understanding this answered a lot of questions at the time about the way work defines a person and itself, and about what it means to live a full and present life.

Ah, if only I had applied the lessons I learned in 2008 a little bit further, because now, in 2011, I am discovering anew that it really is about simply. doing. the work.

All of these years, I've troubled myself with the questions of what am I going to do? and how am I going to do it? I've thought mightily about these questions and never come up with a satisfying answer. So this year, I'm forgetting about the questions all together. Instead of resolutions for abstract concepts like motivation, and inspiration, I'm striving for a more proactive position. My list this year includes things like volunteer more often, and spend more time with friends and loved ones. Real, concrete ways to connect more with my world and with myself. To love deeper, to consider more carefully, to care more. I'm surrendering to the work. The rest, I have faith, will take care of itself.