The silence on this blog hasn’t been so much due to a lack of inspiration, but rather the time — or the quiet — to put it all down on paper. A lot of what I’ve had to say comes between the lines of real-life events, catching up with friends, and spending pool side time with a book.
None of these moments are particularly revelatory. In fact, they are ordinary, occasional, spur-of-the-moment flashes of joy. Like nerding out every time the John Adams theme plays at a Washington Nationals game.
So the latest Hodge Podge is a look at 500 episodes of This American Life, A few short book reviews, and a round up of a mish-mash of things my brain stopped to examine in the last two months.
This American Life at 500
It would be funny to joke that the radio show was five-hundred years old, but really five hundred episodes of top-quality storytelling is something that deserves a few lines. When I first started this blog almost four years ago my intention was to spend every week commenting on the latest TAL episode. While that hasn’t exactly come to fruition, I still find myself listening every week and thinking about the people that are profiled, their lives and what they say about living and being a citizen of these United States.
When I started this blog in 2009 I had intended for it to serve as an outlet for these words I constantly have churning in my head. Words floating around after I step out into the world, asking–begging to be written down. These words are more than just a way to express myself, they are a way for me to paint a picture, tell a story, form a narrative. They are letters that form sentences that lead to ideas.
So when I look back at my words this year, I realize that 2012 was filled with milestones. When this blog goes live it will be my 108th post*, and the nineteen posts that made up this year have a few common themes. Some were labors of love (the history of Jim Crow, and my piece on public history, the American Revolution, and 1865) while others looked to my travels from Wisconsin to Washington State. I also attended some gorgeously produced theatre productions that pushed storytelling to the next level (not to mention the big Disney buys Lucasfilm news). With every word I put down I tried to embrace the connections between what we read, see, and watch and what we think following these experiences.
A storytelling mechanism that I love is one that uses altered realities to push characters toward an unintended and unexpected destination.For some, these altered realities are remembered as if in a dream, while for others it is a rift in time that only comes once a year.
Scene.We are on a stage. Literally sitting on. a. stage. Below us the members of Black Watch are joking around with one another and we can all sense what is coming. We’ve heard live gunfire, been engulfed in the drifting fog, and felt the tension as they fought a choreographed dance with one another and the invisible insurgents in the middle of Iraq. We were given a history lesson, punctuated by uniform changes all to the sounds of the Scottish Highlands. We are in an enclosed space in the middle of Washington, DC, and yet….we are transported. We are somewhere else. We are anywhere but here.
Scene.It’s a story we know by heart. Jane. Beautiful Jane, who we know can’t be beautiful for nothing, trying to be stoic when something that seemed so real, so true, is suddenly over. And her sister, our narrator, is feeling the loss, and looking to understand the sudden changes, but unhampered by 18th century propriety and expectations. This time we are experiencing a 21st century Jane Austen, which includes an Elizabeth Bennet that is someone we all know, someone we could be friends with. A Lizzie Bennet sharing her life on YouTube and Twitter, through the very modern online social world we all live in.
For a long time I have devoted my energies, my time and money, to the accomplishment of a certain end. I have been disappointed. The moment has arrived when I must change my plans. Many will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me. Men who love their country better than gold and life.
–John W. Booth, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt
When we think of history it is linear. One event follows the next tripping forward, action precipitating reaction. And so when the line loops around it provides a sense of historical congruence, a symmetry of understanding that while obvious, feels like puzzle pieces dropping into place.
Just a quick post to share some pictures I took at the Howard Theatre (link to info on the restoration) re-opening this week. If you want to read a great account of the night, that included performances by Trombone Shorty and George Clinton check out this post at PreservationNation — complete with great interior shots that my basic digital camera could not take successfully.
As you can tell from my previous post I love the theatre/theater, and while I often talk about the plays, movies, or performances that occur inside these buildings, these performances are enhanced by the places where they occur. Ambiance, acoustics are often what takes a concert to the next level.
One of the places I saw the Hunger Games was in the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, DC. It’s an old, one screen theater–complete with a balcony. While the movie was the same (I had seen it a few days earlier) there was a sense of grandeur in seeing it again, something that you sometimes miss out at the cookie cutter, stadium seating theaters.
So when an old theatre or theater is rehabbed and brought back to life it’s a wonderful thing. Often these spaces are transformed from original use, but as was the case with the Howard Theatre there is still that origin story of its original place in the community. In this case the memories of performances by musicians of the present and days gone by are about to be added to by a new generation with performances by Savion Glover, Wanda Sykes, James Brown, the Roots and the like.
This is perhaps a post more about narrative than anything else. As I work on another story for May I am ruminating on how to pull together disparate pieces into something coherent and meaningful. And so for this post I thought I would take a look at methods of storytelling in film and theatre. Specifically, the role of the fourth wall in narrative.
The first is a look at the recent book turned into film The Hunger Games, followed by a reflection of a recent adaptation of Eugene O’Niell’s Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. Finally, I wanted to look at the role of participant theatre through my experience at the creepy, yet satisfying production, Sleep No More, a version ofWilliam Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Hunger Games
A story about a world controlled by violence where children are held hostage to a Capitol determined to hold society under their thumbs through an annual gladiator style rite called the Hunger Games. By now, most of you know about this series, andthere isn’t much I cansay about this book that hasn’t already been addressed by others….
Do I recognize the stories precedents in classics such as the Lottery and to some extent Lord of the Flies (and, yes, Battle Royale) Check.
Do I see in the narrative a reflection of our obsessions with 24 hour news, and reality television? Check.
From a storytelling angle, I have to approach the book and the movie separately. The book looks to tell the story from one point of view. We only see and learn what Katniss understands, we know what she knows. It’s like looking at the history of a town or a place and using one person’s diary to tell the tale, sans broader political or social context. We know she is only a piece in a larger machine, but we don’t know what role she plays until later.
In the movie, this tale is approached from two or three different perspectives. We still have Katniss’ point of view—primarily in the arena, but we are also given information as a part of the viewing audience along with glimpses of the undercurrent of malevolence by President Snow and company. And here is where the fourth wall comes in (props to my friend Rob for bringing this up). In the film adaptation we’re pulled into the film primarily through the use of the “hand held (shaky) camera.” The fight scenes feel un-choreographed – and we are amidst the chaos, grappling for some purchase and an upper hand.
The fourth wall is a theatrical term that refers to the barrier between the audience and the events on the screen or stage. “Breaking through the fourth wall,” is when that audience is acknowledged directly, no longer invisible. While the Hunger Games film never directly acknowledges our presence, I did feel at times that the camera work, and the “reality” based storyline made us more than just an unwitting audience member – and made you think of how complicit we are, in our world, of feeding the unreality of reality television.
The story starts with a man talking about his daughter, Nina. Her fiancé has recently passed amidst the fighting of World War I, and her father worries that she will never rise up from her grief and sorrow.
Over the next 3 hours and 45 minutes (a shorter version of play that is normally almost over 4 hours, and often includes a dinner break) viewers are treated with a strange tale. One of grief, manipulation, love (can you call it love?) and expectation. This is Strange Interlude.
I’ll be honest, when we first heard how long it was my friends and I made an unofficial pact (one we probably would never have gone through with, because we aren’t really like that): if we hated the show we would bail during the first intermission.
Luckily that was never necessary. It’s hard to describe Nina Leeds. On one hand she is held up as someone who will not do what is expected, refusing to listen to her father or to an old family friend until pushed. On the other, she and most of the males in her life believe that happiness comes with marriage and children, a daunting task for someone who lives her life for her lost love. When she finally does wed, she discovers a hidden secret in her husband’s family that forces her to live her life dedicated to putting someone else’s happiness above her own.
I don’t want to give away the story (especially for those who may consider attending this show), but I wanted to look at two specific elements. In terms of set it’s a blank canvas. Three pale walls that take up only half of the stage at the Harmon Center for the Arts (the rest of the stage is dark). During scene breaks, scenes of the time/mood/tension are flashed on these walls through black and white silent films.
Much of what we learn about motivations and feeling come from regular asides from each of the main characters. An aside, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is when a character steps out of the normal conversational dialogue to add….an aside, something only we can hear, but none of the other principal actors can. In Strange Interlude we glean sincerity and a version of reality (as each of them see it). Not quite the fourth wall, but certainly insight that we would not get if this was written as a straightforward play.
Don’t want to take my word for it? Let others sway you, and then go see it yourself. (If I didn’t mention it before, this is also a comedy).
Sleep No More
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word. —
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Picture this. You check in your bags, and receive your ticket – a playing card that leads you up some stairs and through a narrow dark passageway that transports you from there (Chelsea, New York City, New York) to here. You are told it is a hotel…the McKittrick Hotel, but it is also a speakeasy where suited up guides use breaks in the music to call out numbers for the much larger show. This is how we are herded, prepared for what is to come.
You get a mask, reminiscent of the masks from V for Vendetta but much more ghoulish, and are told to stop speaking. No cell phones. No outside communication at all. After all you are no longer there…you are here.
And up, up, we go and step beyond the realm of typical theatrics and into the show itself.
Have you ever watched a play and wondered what it would be like to walk on set, walk through doorways, and wander about fake libraries, dining rooms or battlefields? In the McKittrick that is what we get to do. On one floor we are wandering through a graveyard. Small crosses dotting a hallway that is nearly pitchblack. I can smell the dirt, and hear the sorrow. The graveyard turns into ruins, half built brick walls, with a statue of Jesus (or was it an angel?) raising their arms towards us. (Aside: This would have seemed less menacing had I not recently seen the “Don’t Blink” episodes of Dr. Who.) It’s a maze that ends in a wall of glass doorways, and peering through the frosted glass you are given a glimpse of a bedroom filled with other silent, masked attendees.
We walked through the glass and spotted the white, porcelain tub in the center of the room. Papers lay scattered about, and when you pick it up you see a familiar name. Macbeth, writing to his lady love.
And then, he walks in followed later by his wife – and though they never verbalize the conversation we figure out that this is the moment. When she convinces him that regicide is what he must do to achieve the throne.
Then we have a choice. To stay with the Lady, or to follow him as he runs to his fate. We stay, others go. We wait, knowing that when Macbeth returns he will have hands stained with blood. And so he does.
We are a part of the play. We are the silent observers to the madness. It is truly like stepping in, almost like a voyeur, into the play itself. The actors never really acknowledge our presence, but they react, dance and float. They fight and we are moved along with the motion, physically working to find out what comes next.
If anything comes close to truly breaking the fourth wall, this production by Punchdrunk (who champions this type of immersive theatre) does. In this play, Sleep No More, “Lines between space, performer and spectator are constantly shifting. Audiences are invited to rediscover the childlike excitement and anticipation of exploring the unknown and experience a real sense of adventure.” (www.sleepnomorenyc.com). The sets are meticulous, and successfully provide visitors with the opportunity to investigate, opening books, touching tables and wandering.
It is, however, not for the faint of heart. While I explored as much as possible, the silence is unnerving, at times frightening (especially when you are on the upper floor filled with signs of growing insanity by the inhabitants), and I was grateful to have my sister standing next to me.
Like Strange Interlude and The Hunger Games the fourth wall still exists, but it is transparent. While we cannot affect the outcome of the show, we are a part of it, and though you do not need to know the story of Macbeth, it helps to make connections and to understand motivations.
At the end of the night as we stepped from here to there—back into Chelsea, New York City, New York, and reality once again.
Sleep No More is currently being shown through the end of June 2012. For more information visit www.sleepnomorenyc.org.
It has been a long, strange, year. On one hand it felt like it disappeared without a fuss, slipping away, month by month, day by day. Winter became Spring, Summer then Fall in a blink of an eye, but so much happened, both in the world and personally that it has its own weight and import.
And now here we are. Over the anticipation and into the 3rd day of the year two thousand and twelve (try saying that three times fast) with resolutions crying to be made, and best of lists flooding the Internet. I’ve had a year of personal triumphs and losses along with professional challenges that forced us to embrace change.
So 2011, Twenty-Eleven 2-0-1-1 I’d like to bid you adieu.
I am grateful for another year of family. For a wedding that made it grow, and for support when personal losses flew in unexpectedly.
I am grateful for another year of friends. As my thirtieth year on earth begins, having known some of these people for up to ten years has enriched my imagination, my world view, and my heart in the ways that only friends can do.
I am grateful, once again, for a year where I could walk into work and write and talk about something I believe in and love, even when it was hard (and at times, it still is). Change is a funny thing. When you know it is coming it can be frightening, a looming monolith–daunting, but as it sweeps in it can force you to look at old ways of working and push you in new directions. Optimism is my greatest weapon.
I know I haven’t made mention of some of the larger events of the year—of stories that we’ll be talking about as historians for years to come. Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Tornadoes changing the narrative of nations and small towns for decades to come. Believe me those larger events made an impact on how I view the meaning of place and where we came from in a new light. And the death of a friend this summer emphasized that life is fleeting, and that so much of what we have needs to be embraced right here, right now.
And then there are the typical “best of” lists. As always this is a reflection of things I’ve discovered/read/listened/saw this year.
Many of the items on this list I wrote about on the blog this year, while others have flown in under the radar (including my recent love for David Tennant and Dr. Who. As a historian, watching a Time Lord fly around space during different historical periods is amusing and at times, surprisingly poignant.) Downton Abby (Season 2 starts January 8, Season 1 is available on streaming via Netflix Instant and PBS.com) and The Hour are two other series that I haven’t talked much about on the blog, the first has been written about in many places—great acting, great drama. The Hour, a six episode series set in England during the 1950s about a one hour news program, has an intensity that surprised me.
Each of these pieces of pop-culture fed my creative soul, made me learn something new about storytelling, and were, above all else, fun to listen to, watch, and see.
So….Twenty-Twelve, what can I expect from you?
My resolutions for the year are complicated. They range from the personal (eating habits, work out goals) to the aspirational (write more, dream more). Above all else I see 2012 as the year of getting organized, to continue to live my life in a way that helps others and sends love, peace, and kindness out in the world.
It is certainly going to be an exciting year. The Olympics, the 2012 Presidential Elections (to name two) that are sure to make headlines. There will be stories to be told, and lives that will be changed.
It is also a year of moving the needle, and raising the bar. Challenging myself to take risks and leaps that I have only taken tiny, hesitant steps towards in the past. Figuring out what does come next for me personally, professionally, and creatively. So no matter how we write it 2012, Twenty Twelve, 2-0-1-2, this is the year of living life.
How does a play that rhymes Keep us all in line Is it the lovely dresses? Or simply all the messes
The scrapes and schemes With portents and themes Bringing out death and love Or all of the above
But in all the wonder of the stage We are released from the worldly cage To watch in awesome delight As the story tries to set things right
In the last month I’ve had the opportunity to attend four different plays. The first I’ve reviewed before: a tale of witches, assumptions, and finding the truth. Wicked with a first time watcher is always great, and this time I could geek out and sing along.
The other three plays were part of my usual love of Shakespeare. With the start of the 2011-2012 season I experienced my usual double header with Free For All and a newly translated French play that was all in rhyme (much better than my attempt above). However, before we talk about those shows I thought we could talk about another version of the Bard work that I saw in Staunton, VA.
Stripped Down Hamlet
A group of girlfriends and I spent the weekend in a main street town two hours west of DC. Staunton is one of those small towns that have eateries that embrace the local food movement, shops that are all about supporting local merchants, rehabbed local movie house, and a historic hotel. It also has one other thing: a recreation of the London Blackfriars Playhouse.
Blackfriars is the name of two different theatres that existed in London. The first was a children’s theatre replaced by an Elizabethan playhouse that became home to Shakespeare’s company. Both theatres were built on the grounds of Blackfriars monastery. In building this re-creation, The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) intended to mimic Shakespeare’s “original staging conditions.”
I’ve been a season ticket holder of the Shakespeare Theatre in DC for three years now. With each show they put on I am amazed by what a theatre with a strong budget can do with creative staging. Seeing a show at Blackfriars is a completely different experience.
To Thine own Self be True. On this particular trip, we attended a production of Hamlet. In contrast to what I’ve usually seen, ASC presented the show with lights fully on, audience members on the stage, and intermission music that pulled from modern day tunes with the mood of the sixteenth century play. For Example: Letters to Cleo’s Cruel to be Kind, Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence.
Devoid of the trappings of set the show forced the audience to pay attention to the dialogue, and the language of Shakespeare. The lack of set also pushed the actors and through their delivery turned Hamlet’s insanity and subsequent tragedy into a comedy filled with dark black humor.
One last comment on the lighting: Usually when sitting in a darkened theatre the viewer feels disconnected from the story before them. Part of the reason that this version of Hamlet worked so well is that we became a part of the conversation. With the ability to make direct eye contact during the show, I felt as if the story was being told to us, as active agents in Hamlet’s demise, rather than merely a passive presentation.
You can see Hamlet at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA through November 2011.
Et Tu Brute: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
The third show I saw last month was the first show of the 2011-2012 Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) season, which was also a part of Free For All. This year’s free show was Julius Caesar, which while far from perfect (my group wasn’t a big fan of the actor playing Mark Antony), didn’t disappoint.
Presented with as much historical accuracy as possible (at one point Caesar is groomed using these scythe like scrapers called a strigil), the show evoked all the drama surrounding Caesar’s demise with gusto.
With some entertaining hand-to-hand combat and on stage blood, you really felt sucked into the fatal events on the Ides of March.
I walked away from the show wanting a refresher on the way historians describe Caeser’s death, since much of the popular depictions of his death are often drawn from Shakespeare’s play. So much so that you expect familiar lines in other unrelated representations of the rise and fall of Gaius Julius Caeser. I remember when watching the HBO show Rome (which tried to be gritty and realistic) that I expected “E Tu Brute” (click for an interesting conversation about the source of the quotation) to be uttered when Ciarán Hinds (Ceaser) met his end on the senate chamber floor.
There are many different ancient historians of Julius Caeser, and the two I am familiar with are Suetonius and Plutarch. While Suetonius is know for writing his histories by theme, Plutarch wrote about history in a more chronological fashion. I thought I would pull the section in Plutarch’s Lives of Caesar that describes how Caesar died.
Well, then, Antony, who was a friend of Caesar’s and a robust man, was detained outside by Brutus Albinus, who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation; but Caesar went in, and the senate rose in his honour. Some of the partisans of Brutus took their places round the back of Caesar’s chair, while others went to meet him, as though they would support the petition which Tullius Cimber presented to Caesar in behalf of his exiled brother, and they joined their entreaties to his and accompanied Caesar up to his chair. But when, after taking his seat, Caesar continued to repulse their petitions, and, as they pressed upon him with greater importunity, began to show anger towards one and another of them, Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast. At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”
So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.
As I’ve talked about before, representations of history are often just as useful as historical truth. They reveal subtle cues regarding the time in which it was written, while also providing a glimpse into the lasting legacy of a particular piece of history.
Just four days after seeing Julius Caesar I saw a new staging by the STC called The Heir Apparent, written by Jean-François Regnard in 1708. For the first time in a long time I walked into the show not knowing what to expect, and about two hours later I walked out smiling. Presented entirely in rhyme, this translation by David Ives (who also did The Liara few years back) was engaging and light-hearted. By no means a serious play, it follows a young man Eraste who wants to marry, but can’t until his miserly uncle names him the heir apparent. Hijinks ensue, including some cross dressing and a surprise guest that even now we can’t stop talking about.
Ives even inserts, in that clever way that translators do, some more modern allusions bridging the gap between 18th century France and 21st century Washington, D.C. Sometimes this bothers me, but in this case not so much. Probably, in the end, because the jokes flowed seamlessly into the rhyme scheme and were so enigmatically delivered by the players on the stage.
Even the reviewers got into the fun, with Peter Marks of the Washington Post presenting his opinion the same rhyme scheme as the show.
For the last twenty days the Kennedy Center in Washington DC has put on a vision of India. A vision filled with art, music, politics, literature–a vision filled with noise and texture and soul. Maximum India looked to grasp an idea of Indian culture and bring it to the United States. On Friday I attended my last event (though the last of the festival will be a free performance by Panjabi MC) a literature panel with Salman Rushdie and Nayantara Sahgal. The first is the author of Midnight’s Children (an RPSNE book club book) and is known for his incredible use of the English language, while Sahgal, an author in her own right, is known for setting her books against the backdrop of change in the South Asian subcontinent–in addition to being the niece of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Ahdaf Soueif, a political and cultural commentator, moderated the panel.
So the discussion kicked off with a question to each of the panelists about why their work in literature is suffused with discussions of politics. The short answer? Writing is a form of resistance. That the written word proves that identity is not a collection of stereotypes, but rather what you want it to be. Each looked to their generation, Saghal of the revolutionary, and Rushdie from a transitional India, and found separating what happened around them from what happened at home was unfathomable. For both writing involved an element of the public and the private –and that the only way to make sense of change, to reconcile that change with the vision of India the republic, one had to integrate narratives from the personal and political.
Sometimes dealing with current events, sometimes a lively exercise in humor this lecture touched upon some serious ideas. I was drawn to, as I usually am, to the conversation about language. Rushdie, after being complimented on his lack of “respect” for the English language and his ability to embrace its malleability, spoke of how this malleability makes writing about India in English possible. That he had to find a way to break down the “cool, quiet, formal” English of the British Raj to be compatible with the “hot, noisy cacophony” of languages from India. He said that he wanted to “take English away from the English.”
He wants to push language towards the joyful. Hear. Hear.
This thought, amidst the many other topics from this lecture, inspires me. The way we speak to one another, the way we articulate reactions and actions on the familial, local, regional, national and global stage says much about who you are, who we are, who I am. That politics and literature define these identities and often are linked together to tell the stories that official history neglects to tell.
Naturally, this part of the conversation led to the question re: who owns the narrative? Who owns the past? What perspective is the most valid? A subject near and dear to every historians heart–and it is acknowledged that the closer you are to the event/situation the harder it is to see beyond your blinders. Writing in the moment has some value, but taking a step back (that is an act of time mores so than a physical taking a step back) can bring details into focus that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
An obvious assertion, one that I’ve heard a few times in a few different places. Distance and time bring truths closer to the one reality. For literature that is deeply rooted in the larger public narrative of the place in which it is set, that distance and time makes a story stronger, more reliable, more resonant….