Saturday, March 08, 2014
Some digressions are wonderful.
In the course I teach at the Creative Media Institute, we were discussing David Lindsay-Abaire's wonderful play, Good People. This is one of my picks for important plays of the decade. While it is set in Boston, the true setting is the United States during the Great Recession, the tale of a South Boston woman who loses her job and visits an old friend from her neighborhood in search of help. Thus the play squarely examines the conflict of social and economic class against the backdrop of a competitive economy.
Two fallacies the story portrays very clearly are (1) the tendency to view poverty and unemployment as necessarily the consequence of moral weakness, and (2) the tendency for those who have "made it" to believe in a mythical equality of opportunity, and to forget about help or advantages that some have. Refreshingly, the playwright does not strain the point by contriving any characters of unblemished virtue. Indeed, the ambiguity of the characters' ethics and virtue is part of the point.
I'm not sure how the digression began, but a student in the class spoke up about his experience working in automobile sales and financing. With some encouragement from me, he revealed some vivid details of how salesmen and managers view customers, assessing their buying power and credit-worthiness, the negotiating tactics, and after horrifying the students with all of that he started to talk about the competitive pressure on these staffers, motivated not only by greed (the rewards are great for the successful ones) but how disposable they are. In other words, the cynical handling of customers is driven by the pressure to survive. (Just as, in the play, Margie sometimes may lie or manipulate in order to survive however she can.)
I could not have contrived a better illustration of capitalism's human problem. In an economic system that sets people's health and welfare against one another, short of a revolution against that system people do what they do to survive. Who are the sympathetic people, the "good people" in an economy that does not provide sufficient employment and rations essential needs and political power based on financial power? What do we think about an economic system that obligates people to behave the way auto salesmen behave -- and worse?
It's the perfect title for the play. "Good people" is a phrase that emerges in many discussions about political economy and social policy. The good people, as opposed to those deemed non-virtuous. When I lost my full-time job in 2011, due to circumstances out of my power, I would sometimes hear people remark that people should have to pee in a cup to receive an unemployment check. Although I have not yet had to collect an unemployment check, I see no shame in utilizing a benefit that working people pay for while they are employed, and so I would tell them that I was unemployed and ask them if they felt I was suspicious and should take a drug test. Usually, I would hear something like this: "Oh, I don't mean you." Am I among the good people, then? What makes me so? As opposed to whom?
Who are the good people in a system where opportunity is rationed by money and social class, and where the strong feed on the weak by design?
The salesmen and the customers are an example of how the competitive economy pits working people against one another. Are not managers subject to similar survival pressure? And while CEOs seem to enjoy a great deal of power and freedom, what is their experience as they sit on top of these corporations responsible for delivering the goods to their investors? What happens to them, as human beings?
Does anyone really feel they have a reasonable degree of freedom or control of their lives within this system? Maybe successful entrepreneurs do, or some of them. Maybe retirees who have plenty of money. But no one is beyond the reach of the system's problems. In one recent, amusing example, Exxon's CEO, who has defended fracking in accordance with his company's interests, has personally joined a lawsuit seeking to keep fracking away from his own ranch, and he might lose.
In a system that does this to us -- a system that cannot even protect the victors of perpetual class conflict -- what does a phrase like "good people" really mean?
Thursday, March 06, 2014
It started with this production. It was the American premiere of Harold Pinter's "new-old" play, a play he had drafted in 1958 but threw into a desk drawer, as he felt at the time it had no hope of success. By his own account, he found the script twenty years later, rather liked it, and produced it himself in London. Trinity Rep introduced the play to America, in a production I remember as gripping, wildly funny, and mildly terrifying. It set a very high standard for live theatre that I have been trying to live up to ever since. The cast of this production was amazing: Kavanaugh, George Martin, Amy Van Nostrand, Peter Gerety, among others.
The production moved to Broadway, where it won a Tony nomination for Kavanaugh's performance as Gibbs.
In 2012, I read the play again and was astonished at how relevant it seemed for a play written in the fifties. Sadly, its major themes remained relevant in the twenty-first century, of dehumanizing bureaucracy, corruption, and sanitized brutality. There is something timeless about the play, and it does a very deft job of combining humor with a terrible sense of gathering menace. It's young Pinter and one of his better ones, if you ask me.
This was one of several plays I suggested for the No Strings Theatre Company here in Las Cruces, where I have been working regularly since 2011. It is also just about the only play everyone agreed upon. It is a thrill to announce that I will be directing a new production of this play at No Strings for the 2014-5 season. Opening night is a year away.
Monday, March 03, 2014
A friend and frequent reader submitted a question:
I do not care about the Oscars - or awards shows in general. As someone in the business, what do you think about these shows, and am I abnormal for not caring and almost resenting these things as a huge waste of time and energy?
To be honest, your humble correspondent is not a good spokesman for "the business." The people involved with the Oscars have a career profoundly different than mine. The only person I can speak for is me, so the following is a personal reflection on the spectacle of the Academy Awards.
My indifference to the Oscars can be explained in a few simple categories, and it might not be of much interest to anybody, but you never know. And it's my blog. So here we go.
Commercial vs. Artistic achievement
There are some very exciting films being screened at festivals around the world, and you will never hear about many of them. I enjoy good movies, and even some of the bad ones. It would be wonderful to go to Sundance, Cannes, Vienna, et al. Good movies might also be nominated for Oscars, but artistic achievement is incidental. This is about business. Films and artists rise in commercial value with awards or even nominations.
This is not to suggest that the Oscars have nothing to do with art. Good movies do get nominated and win awards. It is nice when actors who are not A-list celebrities are recognized for their performances. This year, for instance, Bruce Dern's nomination brought attention to his performance in Alexander Payne's Nebraska. And I was very thrilled in 2008 when Richard Jenkins, an alumnus of Trinity Rep, was nominated for his performance in The Visitor. He did not win in 2009, but his work and a good small-budget drama got some deserved attention.
The event itself is a commercial product, a televised spectacle with an audience of multi-millions. In order to capitalize on that attention, the event is a lengthy media spectacle and a platform for expensive advertising. It is a platform for fashion designers as well, with much media attention on the red carpet and the attire of the celebrities -- we ask not only what they are wearing, but who they are wearing. Celebrities can rack up quite a bit of goods and services in the form of swag (amounting, this year, to $80,000 per basket).
And guess what? By watching the show, by clicking on news articles about it, by tweeting and posting about it on social media, we are helping millionaires and corporations make even more money. Just as some of these celebrities willingly become billboards for fashion designers, we become billboards for the Oscar brand.
...oh yes, and also Class achievement
These are industry awards, voted upon by a group of six thousand industry insiders. You can read about them on the Motion Picture Academy's page (click here). Apparently, the three faces on that page are representative of the Academy: mostly male, mostly white, and rich. That is changing, but turnover at the Academy is slow and it will take some time for the body to become more diverse. At any rate, there is little prospect for more working-class representation, who might lift up films showing life at other margins of society.
The politics: what we can talk about, what we cannot.
It is fitting that some popular political shows give coverage to the "races" for Best Picture, et al, because these are in fact political campaigns. The six thousand Academy voters are lobbied heavily to support this or that nominee, and the stakes and arguments are often overtly political. For example, there was some suspense this year about whether Cate Blanchett's nomination was in jeopardy, not because of her performance or competing nominees, but because of recent controversy about director Woody Allen, which had nothing to do with her. Ms. Blanchett's public appearances (including other awards shows) were scrutinized for any reference to Woody Allen. It could not be just about her own work, because this is not primarily about art. These are political campaigns and decisions are made with concern for the image of the Motion Picture Academy and for individual professional concerns.
Because the Oscar ceremony has such a large audience, it is hard for the participants to resist the opportunity to work political messaging into their appearances. When Marlon Brando was honored for his performance in The Godfather, he famously sent a surrogate, by the name of Sacheen Littlefeather, to receive the award and make a speech about the plight of indigenous people in America. Video here. Mediaite has a collection of other such moments.
Overt political messaging can also be part of the event itself and of course embedded within the nominated films themselves. During wartime, there tends to be more flag-waving, and when an honoree criticizes a current war they tend to get booed -- even when the war is unpopular, as was the case in 2003. This shows the utility of the Oscars as a propaganda tool: patriotic and pro-capital films can be celebrated, while messages criticizing mainstream culture or government are unwelcome.
We could have a very interesting discussion about whether Scorsese's nominated film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is critiquing capitalism or celebrating it. That discussion will not take place at the Academy Awards or anywhere in the context of the Academy. It is irrelevant.
On one of these political shows, a host recently admitted that Gravity, for all its remarkable visual effects, left him a little cold as a human story and he felt suspicious about the veiled religious messaging. The panel shrugged off these artistic concerns and asked him, "Did you see it in 3-D, though??"
Our latent affection for royalty.
Hundreds of years after the Declaration of Independence and the American and French revolutions, modern concepts of republican or parliamentary democracy, notions of civil equality or social democracy, have never diminished popular affection for royalty and aristocracy. The spectacle thrills our senses with beautiful clothing and uniforms, magnificent architecture, music and pageantry, and the cult of personality about these titans who occasionally consent to walk among the commoners.
Overheard once at the Cafe Tropical in Silverlake, Los Angeles:
"You know, sometimes you'll see Tom Waits here!"
"Well sure -- the coffee's good."
It is not my intention to be a grinch and rain on anybody's fun. A lot of my friends really love watching celebrities turn up on the red carpet, to see what they are wearing, to see how they are aging -- and it is very much as if these are extended family members, people with whom we are familiar.
Fine for them. It just isn't my thing to make titans of men and women and celebrate the lifestyle of an opulent minority. Some of these A-listers are genuinely talented people who have the freedom to make good movies or at least movies they like; but for me it is about the work, not about them. I'm happy for people who work hard and become well-known and well paid for their labor in such an exploitative industry -- it is a rare thing, and most of us will never achieve it. However, the culture's fascination with fame and riches seems, to me, to reinforce and legitimize class disparity, the idea that some people are intrinsically different: beautifuller, smarterer, better endowed to lead, more naturally suited to holding power and reaping the profits of common assets and other people's labor.
Which leads, among other things, to this annual financial whirlwind for the Oscars, as so many of us voluntarily function as unpaid promoters of a commercial event, dutifully tuning in to this long infomercial for the entertainment industry and cult of celebrity, rewarding its advertisers with ratings, internet clicks, and social media posts, all to the additional profit of the production companies and the numerous associated industries.
Clever, isn't it?
Me, I would much sooner have a movie night and invite some friends over to watch, discuss, critique, and invent.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
2 March 2014
John F. Kerry, Secretary
United States Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Mr. Secretary,
In remarks you made on broadcast television today regarding Russian military aggression in the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, you made a rather startling statement, which I quote: “You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.”
Generally, when someone commenting on the day’s news makes me laugh, it is a comedian such as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. It is a rare day when an elected official or cabinet officer gets my funny bone, and this remark is all the funnier in that it was delivered without a hint of irony and seemingly in earnest.
While I uphold a policy that defends Ukraine’s rights to self-determination against aggression by Russia, a remark like this sadly reveals why the United States has no moral ground with respect to military aggression. I am sure you know what I am talking about, but I will proceed with the following points all the same.
In 2002, while you served in the United States Senate, you voted to authorize President Bush’s (and Vice-President Richard Cheney’s) controversial rush toward the invasion of Iraq. You did this in spite of controversy and alarming questions that were raised at the time regarding the pretext for that war.
In 2004, when you were a candidate for President of the United States, your criticism of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was not to state that “You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.” Instead, you criticized President Bush simply for not carrying out his aggression properly, and made the case you would have done a better job of it.
We invaded and occupied a country on a completely trumped up pretext, in the face of mass opposition all over the world. That memory is fresh in the minds of citizens of conscience and our own corruption in this respect undermines the moral case you are trying to make. And there is the ongoing folly of our invasion of Iraq, besides the human devastation and economic ruin it has caused: we lack solid footing for opposing similar behavior by other powers.
While we must oppose Russian aggression against Ukraine, we do so as a giant hypocrite on the world stage. Thus, even a good foreign policy may be undermined – as we were warned in 2002, during the heated rush to a war against someone who had not attacked us. This will, incidentally, come back to haunt your colleague Senator Clinton, if she runs for President as is widely expected.
It might be well for the United States to work within a coalition and allow one of the nations that opposed the invasion of Iraq to be the spokesman. I would at any rate beg you not to make unintentionally hilarious statements about military aggression and trumped up pretexts – for after the laughter, comes the harrowing cynicism.
Saturday, March 01, 2014
Friday, February 21, 2014
What follows is a draft of the program notes for our production of An Iliad, opening tonight at the Black Box Theatre in Las Cruces.
* * *
Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.
This is an original play inspired by tales from Homer’s Iliad. Focusing mainly on Achilles and Hector, the play addresses human rage as a recurring theme in history, from antiquity right up to the current civil war in Syria, and the uprising underway in Kiev this very week.
The show is typically performed with one actor and a musician, usually a cellist. Randy Granger has boldly re-imagined the role of the musician in this play. Are the Poet and the Musician different people? Or are they aspects of one timeless bard? The musical performance and our interactions are improvisational, and the collaboration has been inspirational for us both.
Another musician working on this project is Autumn Gieb. She is working on an original score using a variety of instruments she is inventing herself, and developing a unique take on the Musician as a character. We hope you will consider seeing this Iliad at another venue to enjoy Autumn’s unique contribution.
Theatre Dojo is a project founded in 2006 by Algernon D’Ammassa, Christopher Nelson, and Jen Bloom. Theatre Dojo supports cross-disciplinary approaches in the performing arts and personal disciplines including yoga, martial arts, and meditation. Its mission is the growth of artists and works promoting compassion and social awareness.
Although we do not have dates at this writing, we are working on bringing this show to Deming’s outdoor arena at Voiers Park, to Albuquerque, El Paso, and Tucson, and possibly to North Carolina during the summer. You can follow our travels at http://www.facebook.com/algernoniliad.
We thank Ceil and Peter Herman for welcoming An Iliad at the Black Box.
[Image: Rehearsal photo, with Algernon the left and Randy Granger on the right, playing his amazing three-string cigar box guitar.]
Thursday, February 20, 2014
One reason I have not been updating this blog lately is that I've been preparing one of the scariest performance projects of my life. It is an original play entitled An Iliad, written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, inspired by Homer's Iliad and focusing mainly on the confrontation between Hector and Achilles; and, even more centrally, on the theme of Achilles and rage. The play won an Obie and is currently seeing production at regional theatres all over the United States. I am, as far as I can discover, the first to perform it in the southwest.
The play is typically performed by one actor with a musician in accompaniment. For this production, I have collaborated with Las Cruces musician Randy Granger to create a performance by two bards -- one (me) using the language of storytelling, the other using the language of music. Randy plays a variety of flutes, stringed instruments, and percussion, improvising music throughout. Our rehearsals crackle with creative energy and spontaneity, and the three onlookers we've invited to have a peek at the show say the work is very good indeed.
During the past few days, I have moved from feeling very scared to very excited. But I am still a little scared, still improving my own work, and -- as is typical in theatre -- wishing I had just a few more days to prepare better.
But it is time. The show opens tomorrow night for its first three performances in Las Cruces, at the Black Box Theatre. Randy and I hope to tour the show to venues elsewhere, and we have set up a Facebook page to organize updates and announce new dates.
Meanwhile, local writer David Salcido interviewed Randy and me for a lengthy preview article about the show, which you can enjoy by clicking here.