Monday, February 28, 2011

Squiggly Tailed Light Bulbs

They are called compact flourescent light bulbs. Gradually, the few remaining incandescent bulbs in the house are being replaced with this new generation of light bulb, a bulb that lasts longer and uses less energy.

Shop around, the good brands have varieties that give off wonderful, pleasant light. They are more expensive but you rarely replace them and they reduce your electric bill. They are also a far more efficient use of energy.

One tip: they need to be disposed of properly, as they contain mercury. Check your local sanitation department, and dispose of them the right way, as you do with batteries (we trust!).

Some politicians have lately made quotable complaints about these so-called "squiggly-tail" light bulbs, but at the Burning House this just sounds like good old-fashioned resistance to what is new and improved. And light bulbs are one of these rare examples: truly new, and improved.

[Photo: Gabriel inspects a new-generation light bulb before papa makes the installation.]

Beware the Jabberwock: An Arts/Theatre Workshop

Below is the agenda for the 90-minute workshop taught tag-team with an art teacher from my elementary school, at the FAEA winter conference in Santa Fe last week, a conference of art teachers and school administrators from all over New Mexico.

One of the purposes is to share and demonstrate ideas for lessons or lesson units that integrate the arts with other academic learning, in this case language arts. We presented this as a way to help elementary students (4th or 5th grade in this case) fall in love with language.

This went over so well with the adults I suddenly want to start doing similar workshops with adults.


Introductions - 1o minutes.

Warmup for reading, passing out Lewis Carroll's poem, Jabberwocky - 5 minutes.

Reading Jabberwocky together - 5 minutes.

Discovering words - 10 minutes.

This is where readers individually go through and pick out some of their favorite words. Jabberwocky includes many wonderful nonsense words that look neat on the page and/or are delightful to say. Like frumious! Or frabjous!

We begin to talk about texture with words like tulgey and slithy. Some words, like whiffling and gallumphing, may suggest qualities of movement. The words may also suggest shape and form.

ELLs can play around with these words because they are nonsense and therefore they can command the language using what they already know about language, from Spanish and English. Different pronunciations of outgrabe are fine in this lesson. It's a chance for the teachers and students to discuss what rules of pronunciation they know.

Art time - 15 minutes.

Now it's time to make art. Taking inspiration from a favorite nonsense word, we draw pictures that somehow represent our favorite word. After everyone has had time, we throw the pictures down in the middle and whoever wants to talk about theirs may do so.

If there is time, we go back to the poem and pull out the specific adjectives and verbs that describe the Jabberwock and using those clues, everyone draws a quick sketch of the Jabberwock. There is a lot of room for interpretation here and the variations are quite fun.

Break - 5 minutes

Warm-up for movement - 5 minutes

From Image to Movement : Solo Exploration - 10 minutes

With side coaching from me, everyone explores creative movement inspired from a favorite word. What does "whiffling" look like? What is a gallumphing walk? Are we feeling slithy today?

Group movement collaboration - 15 minutes

Working in groups of 5-6, we practice by playing a basic machine game, the kind of thing everyone does in a theatre class eventually, making one machine with each person's body simulating an interlocking piece of machinery that moves and makes some kind of sound.

Next is a transition to making an animal: less mechanical, more of a flesh-and-bone body, but still using everybody in the group as part of one body. Groups discuss the body parts and create a Jabberwock that can move across the floor safely.

As time allows: sacrifice a classmate to the Jabberwock, allowing him or her to be eaten by the Jabberwock and then get pooped out. (Hey, I work with fifth graders.)

As time allows: slay the Jabberwock. Give a classmate a big boppy tube and let them slay the Jabberwock, which then dies a dramatic death.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deference and Defiance, Egypt and U.S.

Hope knows that unless we physically defy government control we are complicit in the violence of the state. All who resist keep hope alive.

--Chris Hedges

Those are the words of a Pulitzer-winning journalist in explanation of his participation in civil disobedience last December against our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deference and defiance. Similar-sounding words that reflect very different relationships with state power. The deferential pose allows questions and criticism of authority, while taking pains not to obstruct or even to offend it. This is how, for instance, most mainstream news media relate to power. There are lines these journalists won't cross because their livelihood depends on ingratiating the oligarchs in order to maintain access to them and other privileges.

Defiance entails getting in the way, even at personal cost. Non-violent defiance entails civil disobedience and general strikes. Obstructing economic activity is enough to get one labeled a terrorist in the United States, even if the truth is the opposite: sometimes obstructing economic activity prevents violence.

I have continued to follow a few Egyptian blogs after the U.S. media has packed up and moved along to the Oscars. The revolution is actually in its most dangerous phase, and there are a few moving parts in play. One is the military, currently in charge of the country although it was not as friendly to the revolutionaries as our media liked to suggest. There are divisions within the military, from the younger generation of officers to the older and more senior officers who were close to the Mubarak regime. On Friday night, the military began a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, with extensive video documentation here.

Over the weekend, the masses revolting in Madison, Wisconsin topped 70,000 in gentle defiance of a state government's persistent effort to eliminate the right for public sector employees to organize and bargain directly with power. Soon after I write this, the arrests at the state legislature are due to begin, and my hope is that there will be a lot of peaceful arrests that clog the system.

That's what this is about: getting in the way, being "sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world." That is the technique of satyagraha.

Not-Going-Along. This is an element that is too often missing among self-satisfied New Age and pseudo-Zen hocus pocus. Variations on "don't worry about it, it's all a delusion anyway" abound. Yet there appears in this realm a world full of streets. To live, we must cross. To cross, we must use our mind like a sharp knife, making the appropriate distinctions, with nothing sticking to the blade.

Whether we believe it is all a dream or not matters less than how we treat each other within the dream. If crossing a street makes sense, so does taking care of ourselves and those we love, helping them stay out of harm, and addressing the injustices or delusions that may cause us harm.

This might include, at least it could include, participating in an act of disobedience or defiance when state power -- increasingly commingled with the interests of one social class against the majority of people trying to live decently in the world -- is wrong.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Deference in Santa Fe, and Baby Approaches

How shall I briefly sum up my disappointment and exasperation at the winter meeting of the Fine Arts Education Act conference in Santa Fe, a gathering of arts teachers from all over New Mexico to share lesson plans, and how to "sell" (a verb I heard ubiquitously for 48 hours) art education even though art is in fact mandated by federal law as a core component of public education, and ruefully discussing the latest developments of the legislative session taking place only blocks away at the Roundhouse. How many of us passing lesson plans around did so with no confidence we would even be teaching art next fall?

What was getting under my skin? The deferential tone of the whole proceedings. The focus on learning how to function as art teachers within a dysfunctional system, and absolutely no talk of working to upend the system.

Even when an official from one district summed up the entire absurd basis of No Child Left Behind's logic, the approaching day when no school will make AYP any longer.

Still, this deferential tone. Was I the only one who noticed the interesting irony that so many of our workshops and meetings took place in basement level conference rooms and auditoriums? Deference! While the arts as a core of public education was being left to die in a large, open, public space a short walking distance away from us, we the big brave arts educators scheduled our lamentations and eulogies below street level, hissing at each other underground.

Heaven forfend we annoy the lawmakers.


During a meeting of the New Mexico Advisory Council on Arts Education, which was taking place -- that's right -- in the basement of the New Mexico Museum of Art, my wife called to tell me she was on the way to the hospital. She was going into early labor and the doctor wanted to put a stop to it if she could.

The pregnancy is barely at 36 weeks. The hospital worked hard to give baby Lucca one more week, at the very least, to develop stronger lungs and prepare for life out here in the burning house. They kept her overnight (as I drove with all speed for 300 miles across New Mexico) and gave her a prescription to put the pause button on the whole process. We are home, taking it easy, paying attention to each moment with Sarah's bag packed.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Trip to Santa Fe, Amidst Uncertainty

The relative quiet of this blog will continue for a couple more days, as your correspondent is leaving for Santa Fe to teach theatre workshops for New Mexico schoolteachers.

The trip comes as I hear rumors -- rumors, so we don't know what the facts are -- that art teacher positions are on the chopping block for next year.

Yesterday the first cell phone I have owned since 2008 arrived. It is blue and resembles a vitamin pill; I wonder if I could actually swallow it. I'm barely tech savvy enough that I was able to set it up without hiring a teenager to do it for me. It has 25 ring tones, most of which sound like club music.

In four weeks or so, the second child is due to arrive, and preparations are underway. I'm still waiting to hear if the leave I requested will be approved. And so it goes. Two days of conferencing and training with teachers from all over our state, many of us wondering with good reason if we'll even have jobs in a few months.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Checking In: Wisconsin and Personal Matters

Good morning.

The horrible cold snap has blown over, yet the plumbers that serve Deming are still busy fixing the pipes that burst all around town. We had an underground leak in our back yard this week and it took days to get someone out here. This hard-working man dug around and dug around and ended up capping a leaky water line that no one could identify. So far everything here seems to be working as normal, and none of the neighbors have complained about losing water service.

The run of Crime and Punishment in Las Cruces finished last weekend, and all week Sarah and I have been rehearsing music for a local variety show. School is also busy, and in addition to all of that there are arrangements to be made around the arrival of our second child, due in the next few weeks. Somewhere in this mess I am also going to Santa Fe for a couple of days to teach theatre workshops for school teachers.


It is cheering to read about working people flexing their muscle in Wisconsin. It appears that this governor they have up there is full of it. He is attempting to rush through painful austerity measures in order to pay for expensive tax cuts he gave to the business class, and a bunch of non-fiscal attacks on the working class such as eliminating the basic right of public sector workers to organize and bargain. In other words, union busting. He exempted something like three unions (don't have it in front of me but three come to mind) who had contributed to his election campaign. The other unions are out.

Is Wisconsin in such terrible shape fiscally? Not according to the state's own non-partisan fiscal bureau, which says that the state is projected to be running a surplus in the near future, and the current budget shortfall happens to resemble the figure created by the governor's unnecessary tax cuts for businesses.

When someone mentions the existence of class warfare in the United States, they are often accused of creating it themselves. Nonsense. We have a very organized, highly funded, strongly unified wealthy class in the United States that is using politics to secure its own interests, and legislation like what we saw in Wisconsin this week is what that looks like. For a change, working people pushed back. The schools had to close for two days, and we'll see about today, because teachers en masse joined the tens of thousands of people who massed at the legislature in Madison. This is how it should be. This is what is required. Being uncomfortable, and making things shut down.

In order to block this budget from certain passage, the Democratic lawmakers from that state boarded a bus and fled Wisconsin -- rumor has it they are hiding out in Illinois -- so the state police could not arrest them and compel them to participate in this assault on the people of Wisconsin. This is the choice left to them. In the United States of America, this happens.

A Good Blog

Lately, blogger Nathan Thompson has been on a roll over at Dangerous Harvests. Do pay a visit and look at some of his recent posts. He addresses the latest sad controversy in the realm of American Zen, some of his trademark bareboned reflections on his Zen practice, and also some posts about yoga practice and culture as he has been training to teach yoga himself.

Coming Soon

For a few minutes a day, I get to read what I want to read, and recently I've been going slowly through Iain Bruce's detailed critique of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, The Real Venezuela. It is deep in the details of policy and its impact on the lives of ordinary Venezuelans, not so much about the larger-than-life figure of Chavez. Reflections on that will follow here.

Have a wonderful weekend, and if you're local, why not come out the Depot Theatre Saturday night or Sunday afternoon? Our show has some laughs and some terrific music. There are some impressive musicians living out here, and for a while this month there was nothing to do but stay indoors and practice. Enjoy the results.

[Photo: Putting the little one to bed after Wednesday night Zen practice.]

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Ignition. Combustion. Change. Destruction.

It is only honest to admit that this blog openly hints at its author's pessimism. The title of the blog, the image of the blogger writing messages in the midst of a fire, is an obscure nod to Antonin Artaud and an analogy for many worlds through which we view this lifetime.

The burning house is attachment to egotistical desires and conceptions of the world. The burning house is our ecological predicament, the process under which the human habitat is shrinking while human beings dither and bicker. The burning house is the American revolution, the fading belief in a democratic union of human beings in fair and equal justice. The analogy refers to the individual being and the social body to which she belongs.

It is natural to perceive life as a conflagration, a process in which 10,000 things are interacting and changing one another in a process that is both productive and destructive. Like a fire. Depending on which pair of lenses we look through life, we live in a series of a burning houses.

This is not necessarily a pessimistic view, but I'll admit some of that: Of the human beings who live and have lived, very few have taken any interest in waking up. I have largely given up on my own country's potential to realize democracy and social justice -- yes, I admit to that. I'll also admit openly that I don't trust the human species will act to change the rapidly deteriorating ecological condition that supports human life. (The period of migration has already begun as land becomes unusable and water becomes more precious. The wars will begin soon.) The world will change with accelerating violence as human beings leave themselves with fewer, and more costly, choices for how to survive.

Yet hope lives in occasional contradictory evidence and the possibility of being proven wrong. Since January, I have been reminded of hope -- real hope, not that tired buzzword in U.S. politics, as epitomized in the disappointing leadership of President Hope N. Change -- and the lessons are coming from Arabic Africa. So rarely do I feel proud of our species; lately, I am reminded that we have our good moments.

The largely non-violent popular revolutions taking place in Tunisia and Egypt have hit me hard enough that I mostly watch (to the point of near obsession) and do not comment, because I don't really know what's going on or what's going to happen. Neither do you. Neither does Glenn Beck, although his fantasies are entertaining. Neither does Barack Obama or his imperial court (all deeply chagrined at the loss of Hosni Mubarak, a reliable and stable "partner" during his 30-year dictatorship). Neither, even, do the people of Tunisia or Egypt. This is revolution. This is conflgration. Once you kick out your dictator, you are in uncharted territory. What next? Don't know.

Tunisia and Egypt are now in the "what next?" phase of their revolutions, which is simultaneously the most dangerous and the least telegenic phase. When the multitudes occupy Cairo's Tahrir Square, there are lots of good pictures for the cameras. The process of writing a new constitution and implementing fair elections is not as attractive to our entertainer-journalists. So the lights go off and the eyes of the world turn elsewhere. This is how Honduras fell, how its own movement to reverse a coup and restore its elected leadership was left to die openly on the street. The cameras go away yet the conflagration is still in process: ignition, combustion, change, and destruction.

How many people in the U.S. watched this and, for just one moment, compared the anguish and the aspirations of the Egyptian public to their own situation, here in the U.S. power structure, where money rules and human beings are left to die?

The guy writing messages in this particular burning house tends toward pessimism, but over the last couple of months he is reminded that amid the embers there yet glows true hope and possibility.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Carolina Chocolate Valentine

We love the wife. We also love the Chocolate Carolina Drops. So Happy Valtentine's Day for tomorrow, and enjoy this.

Friday, February 11, 2011

If Scorn Were Firewood

February arrived in Deming with an icy vengeance, snow blowing around in a wind that cuts through wool and freezes your bones. The weather matched the news we found on the front page of our newspaper that morning of February 1: Luna County’s unemployment rate reaches almost 20%, the highest rate in New Mexico. 7,600 of our neighbors are out of work in a depressed economy.

Addressing this long-playing crisis in our community, County Chairman Javier Diaz heaped insult upon injury by advocating drug tests for anyone applying for unemployment insurance. Yes, that’s the problem: those fishy unemployed people are all on drugs!

Thus New Mexico embraces the repugnant fashion of bashing the unemployed. A growing contingent of lawmakers are promoting laws forcing anyone receiving unemployment assistance -- an insurance program that workers pay for while they are working, let us remember -- to present a sample of their urine and be tested for drugs. Thus, they redirect public anger from a crisis-prone economic system onto the poor instead.

Are there grounds for suspecting all unemployed persons? Chairman Diaz cited one anecdote: an officer of a mining company told him that some applicants are failing their drug tests. This may well be true, but is there actually an epidemic of drug use among the unemployed? May we see some data? If the unemployed are truly addicted to narcotics en masse, will the county treat this as a medical emergency and get help for residents with drug problems? Or shall we respond with moral opprobrium, denying services to the needy and leaving them, so to speak, out in the cold? Will unemployed people have to pay for their own tests? These are the questions that come to mind when we view the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

Why is there no mention of alcoholism, which is surely an impediment to productive employment, health and safety, and tends to increase in conditions of poverty and bad economic times? What is the moral basis for shaming the person who smokes marijuana on a weekend, while ignoring his neighbor who gets intoxicated on a nightly basis? When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef off of Alaska, spilling ten million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, her captain was under the influence of alcohol, not pot.

What about citizens who have been legally prescribed marijuana for various medical conditions? If a person in that situation loses their job through no fault of their own, would they be forced to choose between unemployment insurance and their medication? If skipping their medicine prevents them from working, does this not create a drain on the system? These are the questions that come to mind when we view the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

The concept is not new. In 1999, Michigan went down this road, requiring citizens who applied for assistance under the Temporary Aid for Needy Families Act to provide urine samples. This violation of the dignity of her citizens was struck down by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling that such mass testing of people in poverty without grounds for suspicion violated the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. These are the principles that come to mind when we view the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

The true spirit of the war on drugs and moral shaming of the poor makes more sense when we ask, “Cui bono?” Who benefits? Drug testing is a highly profitable industry seeking new markets. Since the 1980s it has expanded into more areas of society, from the workplace to the criminal justice system, the military, and even the school system. It also seeks entry into the public safety net, despite our pesky Constitution. There is another highly profitable industry with an interest here: our increasingly privatized penal system. There are surplus populations to contain, and money to be made.

Luna County remained colder than Alaska for that entire week, with temperatures sitting around 0 and wind chills as low as 22 below. 7,600 unemployed people had to figure out how to stay warm that week, like the rest of us. My guess is, they spent money on propane, extra blankets, or saving for the next utility bill. These are assumptions we make when we think of the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

If scorn were firewood, we would all stay warm.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Are Communists Made of Green Cheese? [UPDATED]

Today, the Burning House paid a visit to, a web site for statewide news analysis and political commentary, founded by Heath Haussamen.

They saw fit to run an original piece by your humble blogger about the appointment of Harrison Schmitt, the retired astronaut who seriously believes global warming is a communist hoax, to be her cabinet secretary on environmental policy. Click here to read "Are Communists Made of Green Cheese?"

[UPDATE: During the afternoon of 10 February 2011, Harrison Schmitt abruptly withdrew his nomination. Was it something I said? No, certainly not. He withdrew over his objections to a background check. Story here. ]

[Photo: Harrison Schmitt, a man who sees communists under his bed.]

Believing Our Fantasies

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

Wallace Shawn, the actor and playwright, best known to millions for his role in The Princess Bride ("Never get involved in a land war in Asia!"), has come out with a book of essays, one of which is a beautiful piece of writing about actors, society, and mankind's capacity for believing fantasies about other people.

He begins by pointing out one common misperception about what actors do. It is commonly assumed that the actor's art is mainly one of deception, of imitating other people and assuming false identities. It is this conception that moved Plato to bar actors from his ideal republic. To the contrary, Shawn explains that what actors do is journey deeply into themselves and present what they find there. To play a king, one transcends one's normal persona and finds the king that is within their own person. If I play a king, you are seeing what might have happened if I had been born in such a place and had things happen to me that led to me becoming a king. When you look at this way, I am putting a costume on, yes, but I am also taking my own costume -- the costume that makes me the person you think you know -- off.

There is an element of pretend, of course -- that's the point. It is all pretend. Our personas are pretend. The personas are useful but they are pretend. To the extent we believe our personas are real and immutable, that our lot in life is thus and this is the story's end, we suffer. For actors, this is obvious; but it is rarely apparent to everyone else.

The broader social implication, Wallace explores when he speaks of 400,000 babies being born each day. Most of these are born healthy and Shawn writes, "every one of them is ready to develop into a person whose intelligence, insight, aesthetic taste, and love of other people could help to make the world a better place." From there, something awful happens, as Shawn explains.

Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.

As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label “factory worker” and thrown down into a certain particular pit. And when the moment comes when one of the babies is fully prepared and old enough to work, she’ll crawl out of the pit, and she’ll find herself standing at the gate of a factory in India or in China or in Mexico, and she’ll stand at her workstation for 16 hours a day, she’ll sleep in the factory’s dormitory, she won’t be allowed to speak to her fellow workers, she’ll have to ask for permission to go the bathroom, she’ll be subjected to the sexual whims of her boss, and she’ll be breathing fumes day and night that will make her ill and lead to her death at an early age. And when she has died, one will be able to say about her that she worked, like a nurse, not to benefit herself, but to benefit others. Except that a nurse works to benefit the sick, while the factory worker will have worked to benefit the owners of her factory. She will have devoted her hours, her consideration, her energy and strength to increasing their wealth. She will have lived and died for that. And it’s not that anyone sadly concluded when she was born that she lacked the talent to become, let’s say, a violinist, a conductor, or perhaps another Beethoven. The reason she was sent to the factory and not to the concert hall was not that she lacked ability but that the market wanted workers, and so she was assigned to be one.

Such a poignant and vivid critique of the nature of globalized capitalism, the neoliberal system that makes slaves out of whole nations.

The Buddha's insight is that our own persona, our particular "self," as defined within a most confined and unexamined space, is a delusion. At best, it is a useful delusion -- it helps us cross the street without being killed, for instance. Still, it is a fiction, and to the extent we make decisions based on that fiction being reality, we limit our ability to realize ourselves and love others. What goes along with this, of course, is that we perpetuate the suffering by believing the same about "other" beings. We believe our fictions about other individuals in our lives, and we also believe fictions about masses of people.

It is possible to wake up. Shawn describes a fleeting moment of awakening.

I happen to play a semi-prosperous fortunate bohemian, not doing too badly, nor too magnificently. And as I walk out onto the street on a sunny day, dressed in my fortunate bohemian costume, I pass, for example, the burly cop on the beat, I pass the weedy professor in his rumpled jacket, distractedly ruminating as he shambles along, I see couples in elegant suits briskly rushing to their meetings, I see the art student and the law student, and in the background, sometimes looming up as they come a bit closer, those not particularly selected out -- the drug-store cashier in her oddly matched pink shirt and green slacks, the wacky street hustler with his crazy dialect and his crazy gestures, the wisecracking truck drivers with their round bellies and leering grins, the grim-faced domestic worker who’s slipped out from her employer’s house and now races into a shop to do an errand, and I see nothing, I think nothing, I have no reaction to what I’m seeing, because I believe it all.

I simply believe it. I believe the costumes. I believe the characters. And then for one instant, as the woman runs into the shop, I suddenly see what’s happening, the way a drowning man might have one last vivid glimpse of the glittering shore, and I feel like screaming out, “Stop! Stop! This isn’t real! It’s all a fantasy! It’s all a play! The people in these costumes are not what you think! The accents are fake, the expressions are fake -- Don’t you see? It’s all --”

Followed by slipping back into the normal mode of believing appearances.

But implicit in his essay is this: once the mask really drops, it is hard to forget. And it is possible to love yourself and other people for all the multitudes that we are. What Shawn does not get to in this essay is that we are not billions of separate human beings. Separate bodies, perhaps, but our being is interconnected.

When the mask drops and we don't believe the fantasy anymore, we still have to make a living. So we wear the cop outfit, the professor outfit, the bohemian outfit, the maid outfit, but put up with the roles imposed on us by the market and human ignorance, unless we are in a position to help change the roles. When the mask drops and we don't believe the fantasy anymore, the bodhisattva can appear in any human form whatsoever, distributing light and forgiveness wherever they walk.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Rambling Theatre Memoir by Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud's reflections on his career as an actor and director of Shakespeare's works will be of great interest to many, in particular those who work in the theatre. On the other hand, as a book, this is not what it could have been.

The book appears to be a memoir dictated to its co-author, and the reflections and remembrances move in a jumbled stream of consciousness, reflecting very lazy organization. The chatty approach makes for a mixed bag, with interesting anecdotes and observations about the theatre, but without a throughline that would help the reader return to these subjects later. Even Gielgud's famously bitchy sense of humor is subdued here, as if he were doing his very best to behave himself.

The photographs are also organized in no apparent order, although for some reason the Hamlet photographs are all together, as are most (but not all) of the Prospero photographs. It is a stream of consciousness mirroring the rambling nature of the memoir.

Acting Shakespeare. John Gielgud with John Miller. (2000) Applause.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Recalling Peter Wallace's Lear

Given the ephemeral nature of the live theatre, old actors have a tendency to recall past productions the way grizzled warriors recall campaigns from the distant past. Acknowledging this, we give you fair warning that this post might be of very limited appeal: a dreaded theatre memoir. It is also a pathetic effort at documenting, however scantily, an interesting work that to my knowledge was not photographed or documented.

What started these rocks moving around my head was reading Gielgud's rambling memoir about his career working with Shakespeare, and his recollections of King Lear. Among other challenges, the play presents the challenge of staging the epic storm against which Lear rages. Gielgud recalls a few productions, including the Peter Brook production where the storm was simulated in an imaginative style, using ropes.

In 1992 (I think), Peter Wallace directed a Lear in New York City that very few people saw, because the venue was small and its ensemble were all undergraduates in Wallace's theatre department at the New School. The space was a peculiar atrium in the student center, sky-lit and open yet stony, grey, and cold, surrounded by grey pillars that supported the roof dome.

Wallace is no longer at the college, and I've lost track of him, though I did see his production of The Sound and the Fury when he brought it to Providence in 1998 or 1999, which was quite good and generated some buzz.

It is regrettable that our Lear was not documented in any way -- I do not even know if any photographs were taken -- as it was quite interesting. Wallace created an ensemble piece in which Lear was attended by a large chorus of us, echoing the convictions howling in his mind. The young actor playing Lear was Eli Bishop, the son of theatre artists Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller of The Independent Eye. Eli had very long blonde hair, and was a wraith-like figure in those days, lean and fragile, yet he spoke in an impressive baritone. Though he was quite young in the role, he conveyed such a sense of weariness and unspeakable sadness that, of all us twenty-somethings in the cast, he had to be Lear.

The cast was full of interesting people including Vanessa Gilbert of the Perishable Theatre, who played Kent. Mike Doughty was doing a lot of theatre at the college during that time, but he sat this one out. He was around so much, however, it almost feels like he was in the cast. Rachel Benbow Murdy (click that link, the interview is so delightfully like Rachel in person, and she has scarcely aged a year since I knew her) might have been Peter's assistant director on this project, but I'm not sure about that. I played Edmund and was probably awful -- really didn't know what to do with myself in those days.

There was no verse work in that production at all. This is not really Peter's fault, he just did not have the time or the inclination to teach us, and there was no one else around to do it. I did not learn how to speak verse until I met Julia Carey and Carol Gill at Trinity Rep Conservatory, years later.

Anyway, the storm. We had this open space that was all stone, and we built no set -- in some ways, we were quoting the RSC MacBeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench (a famous production from the 1970s), performing on no set surrounded by the ensemble. When it came time for the storm, Peter Wallace handed us all a pair of wooden dowels. We sat on the floor and plinked the floor with these rods, and found they made quite a racket. With some practice we were able to modulate from the first drops of rain to the storm in full wrath, while being careful not to drown out the text.

It was a mise-en-scene that served the play and the space quite well, and made for quite an interesting performance of that play. In spite of our inexperience as performers, the play and Lear's agony came to life in a way that moved many audience members to tears -- and me. The play makes me weep to this day, even on the page.

[Photo: Eugene Lang College main building on 11th Street between 5th and 6th in New York City. The atrium theatre space was not in this building, but this is where I took acting classes with Anthony Abeson, a passionate teacher whom I drove crazy.]

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Drug Tests

Luna County, where I live, has hit 20% unemployment. The chairman of the County Commission has responded by complaining that unemployed people are on drugs.

No, really. New Mexico has taken up this idea with a vengeance. There is a bill making its way through the legislature to require anyone receiving unemployment assistance -- an insurance program that working people pay into while they are working, let us remember -- to pass a drug test.

Chairman Javier Diaz put this at the top of his list of impediments to employment. Not economic activity, but drug use. It must be their fault. To support his attack on the unemployed, he offered one anecdotal bit of evidence. Apparently, somebody at the Chino Mine south of Silver City told him they have trouble hiring enough people to expose themselves to the poisons they use in the mines because so many people allegedly can't pass a drug test. Beyond this, we see no figures to substantiate the allegation that the unemployed are addicted to narcotics en masse.

It is no surprise that drug use, to whatever extent this complaint has merit, is spoken of as a moral issue and not a medical one. Conclusion: if you smoke pot, you're a bad person and not good enough to risk arsenic poisoning in a copper mine.

Drawing economic activity to this area is clearly a long-term challenge, and for this the county leadership has my sympathy. On the other hand, slapping working people when they are already down, besmirching the character of the unemployed as a class, not treating them with human respect and concern, is a repugnant fashion of our times.

Forgive me for smelling the rhetoric of social control, directing public anger away from the economic conditions and the system that creates these conditions, and turning them against the unemployed instead. They're on drugs! They are parasites! Reagan's welfare queens walk among us!

So now we make them pee in a cup before they get assistance that working people themselves have helped to pay for? What next, making them pay for the drug tests themselves? God bless America. Fa schifo.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

You're Not Zorro

I vow to abstain from taking things not given.

Here is a thought experiment. Let's imagine a science-fiction scenario in which you have an invention that can instantly make a tangible copy of any object. You point your little machine at a cup of cappucino and poof! it produces a cup of cappucino you can drink and everything.

You take your gizmo to your local cafe, order up a cappucino, and when the guy puts it on the counter, before you pay, you point your machine. Poof! An identical cup of cappucino appears. You then grasp your copy and tell the guy behind the counter, "Never mind, thanks. I have my own." And you walk away.

Here's the question: are you stealing?

Yesterday, I heard a stock defense by a character who felt that pirating movies, or "ripping" them by making a copy of a movie which is then distributed for free, is not stealing. His defense was that if he distributes a copy (never mind the fact that this is illegal) of my movie, he never stole an actual product -- he made a copy of it. Furthermore, he did not deprive me of any revenue by doing this -- he only robbed me of potential revenue, which was never mine to begin with.

To make it worse, he declared that piracy is a compliment. I should be pleased. Hey, baby, I know you didn't give your consent, but cheer up -- you weren't half bad.

This is the mindset of a lot of people who use modern media. The ease with which you can copy and distribute movies and music is accompanied by a sense of entitlement. If people consider the consequence at all, they assume they are only stealing pennies from a giant corporation. Hey, I'm Zorro! I'm sticking it to the man.

Mmmm, sorry. No eres el Zorro, maricon.

Getting back to the cappucino thought experiment above. Your intent was to enjoy a cappucino for free. You employed your magical technology for just that purpose. To get your capp, you had to go to a place of business and order a cappucino. Someone used their skills, some ingredients, and energy to produce a cappucino thinking you were going to be honest and pay for it. You then made a copy of what she made for you, and walked away with that, leaving her with a cappucino that is now getting cold and no compensation. One can argue that this hits the employer, not her. But we live in a capitalist structure where she depends on her pay and perhaps on tips (which you also did not leave). If everyone gave themselves the right to do what you did, the place could not stay in business and she'd be out of work.

Actors frequently "invest" work without compensation as a means of getting exposure. Two of my three movies were made on very low budgets as independent ventures, and I "invested" by acting in them without compensation up front. My pay is based on people paying to see the movie. One of those movies became quite popular as an illegal download, which cut into my pay. So I view piracy as theft from artists. It is taking something not given, and here we are not only referring to money, but to the dignity of artists as workers.