Sunday, February 24, 2013

Actors in the political sphere

As you may have heard, if you follow political news at all, there is a distinct possibility that Ashley Judd will run for the United States Senate in Kentucky, as a Democrat.  A famous Republican political strategist, Karl Rove, has already produced an ad making a case against her.

That is not in itself remarkable.  This is just a taste of what's in store for a national political candidate, particularly one who enters the race already a celebrity.   (In addition to being a well-known professional actor, Ms. Judd has been active in politics and has a master's degree in public administration.)

However, we highlight once again the perennial prejudice voiced against members of the acting profession who engage in politics, either as activists or candidates.  Appearing on a Fox network talk show, Karl Rove said this about Ashley Judd:

She’s going to get to know that she is not going to be able to wait until, you know, the screen writers from California and the producers could make her look good, and prepare the ads and give her lots of lines to memorize so that she can handle these things.

It never fails, and it is not limited to one political party.  Political rivals mocked Ronald Reagan for seeking office after being a B-movie actor, and a CNN commentator mocked Al Franken, a lowly comedian, when Franken ran for the Senate.  These are just two examples among many.  Reagan, of course, served two terms as President of the United States; he had also been Governor of California and, irony of ironies, a union leader.  Franken turned out to be a hard-working and intensely studious senator who shies from the limelight. 

During the years Arnold Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California, the leading watchdog website, ArnoldWatch, frequently stooped to potshots about Schwarzenegger's acting background with sneering comments that denigrated the profession itself.  I complained about this several times and was staunchly ignored, which is the only reason I didn't donate.

So today it's Ashley Judd, mocked as a mere entertainer, someone who can't address political issues without being scripted by writers and handlers.  (Isn't that Karl Rove's profession: political handling?   Isn't that the service he provided to George W. Bush and other politicians?)  

One can argue, quite reasonably, that this is just strategic trash talk about a potential political opponent.  It is that, certainly.  But what makes it strategic is that it plays on very common stereotypes about actors, a rogue profession, a profession that is not really "work," a profession that involves role-playing and changing identity.

Prejudices against actors and theatre have deep roots in our culture.  Plato excluded actors from his ideal republic because they pretend to be other people and stimulate passions.  The Buddha as represented in the Lotus Sutra didn't like actors, either, for similar reasons.  Actors are considered shifty, narcissistic, and libidinous. It is not really a surprise that political opponents would go after the profession, going so far as to suggest that performers are not fit for serious public service. 

People enter government from lots of different professions.  This includes arts and entertainment.  And really, why not?  Here's what I wrote in a 2010 post about actors and politics:

To succeed, actors cannot only be artists; they have to be successful as businesspeople. They themselves are the business. Unless they are born into Hollywood royalty (like your Nicholas Cages and George Clooneys), the actors have to know the trade backwards and forwards, and to be audacious and break the rules at just the right time, and be very lucky on top of it, just to get an opportunity.

A person like that will very likely succeed in elected office if that's what they set themselves to do. Personally, I just hope they are interested in serving the interests of people rather than -- well, you know, the interests that Reagan served. A figure like Reagan who was actually on the side of people would be a dangerous figure indeed.

[Image: A certain president before he took his seat in the Oval Office.]

Friday, February 22, 2013

What if stagnation is the norm?

The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (2012) is a rigorous critique of our economic system and the way contemporary economists analyze it. The authors are John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review, and the political economist Robert McChesney.

Building on the work of Paul Sweezy (co-author of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order in 1966), Foster and McChesney further develop a theory of "monopoly-finance capital," in which profits are sought through financial speculation rather than production, in a system dominated by multinational corporations. Among the outcomes of such a system: financial bubbles and stagnation, as demand is insufficient to absorb investment capital.

Time does not permit a detailed review -- it's opening night for Our Town.  One achievement of this book is its data-based critique of our political economy and mainstream economic theories -- from the Chicago school to Keynes to Marx -- in terms that allow them to enter into a debate with the profession and our citizenry.  We need this.  Economics is not the sexiest material for the general reader, yet the implications bear directly on our lives and the parameters which determined the choices available to us.

The cold war is over and it is time for us to relax a bit and allow ourselves to examine our economic system, criticize it, and debate alternative ways of arranging things. 

That's my short review.  Gotta go. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Small Roles

Tomorrow night is the formal public opening of the university's new Center for the Performing Arts, a $38 million dollar building that now houses NMSU's art history and theatre departments, as well as a new proscenium theatre with an up-to-date fly system. 

It will also be the opening night performance of American Southwest Theatre Company's first production in its new space: Thornton Wilder's play Our Town.  The cast includes theatre majors at NMSU, a few professors at the university, and several actors from the Las Cruces area.  Although Las Cruces is a much bigger city than the fanciful Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, our ensemble has the feel of a locally-based community which suits the play well. 

In the show, I play Joe Stoddard, one of the play's many secondary characters.  Stoddard is the town's undertaker, who appears in Act III for a short expository scene that segues into the play's conclusion.  Although I have been at rehearsal for many hours, in this show I have less stage time, less to memorize, and consequently this show has not been as laborious as some other recent projects, although I have been called at rehearsals along with the rest of the cast.

A director with whom I have worked locally has on more than one occasion expressed consolation and a certain umbrage on my behalf, over the fact that I play a small role in this show.  It had not occurred to me that I would feel insulted about this. 

For one thing, my age range is 35-45, and most of the primary characters in Our Town are either younger or older.  The major role in this play is the Stage Manager, who could be any age but is often played by older actors.  (In our production, the role is played by a well-known local actor and retired professor, Richard Rundell; and he truly looks and sounds as if he were born for the role.)  For a male actor in my age range, this leaves the secondary characters: Simon Stimson, Constable Warren, et al.  Or, in my case, Joe Stoddard.  Why not?

The cliche statement that "there are no small roles, only small actors" (or something like that) doesn't really make sense to me.  There are small roles, and they are necessary.  Our Town is loaded with them.  I won't even begin to list the great plays that are populated with small, yet vital, roles.  Playing a small role in a good play is nothing to be ashamed of.  I am happy to do it.

Growing up watching plays at Trinity Rep in Providence, I saw some terrific actors from that resident company -- including some actors who became rather well known in film and television -- take turns playing lead roles and small ensemble roles.  Granted, one can argue that they were working under Equity contracts and getting paid well for those small roles.  True enough, but I honestly believe this was not the only reward for them.  I was well paid when I worked at Trinity (one of the proudest periods of my life), and yet I remember My Fair Lady (in which I did little more than sing and dance in the chorus) as fondly and proudly as a show like Saint Joan where I was much more prominent. 

The satisfaction of being in a really tight ensemble doing good work in a successful show is deeper and broader than the fleeting thrill of personal attention.  If this work is all about you, the work is never satisfying for long. 

I hope all my friends come and see this show.  You'll catch a glimpse of me but more importantly you'll see some high-quality theatre and a lot of hard-working local actors, both professional and amateur.  A splendid evening awaits you and I also believe this new take on a familiar play will give you much to talk about. 

[Image: Entrance to the new performing arts center at University and Espina.]

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Killing the Post Office

This is the second installment of my new monthly column in the Deming Headlight.   "Killing the Post Office" appeared in today's edition.  To see the link on the Headlight's page, click here.

On a recent Saturday morning, the sight of mail trucks navigating Deming's dust storms brought to mind the famous inscription on the Farley Post Office building in New York City: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." This vow of public service was once so iconic it was widely assumed to be the official creed of the United States Postal Service.

The USPS does not have an official motto, but it does have a legal mandate to provide universal service. As established in Article I of our Constitution, the postal service is a public agency accountable to the Congress. Unlike a private business, the postal service is required to serve rich and poor alike, from our thriving cities to our rural areas, at affordable prices. Moreover, it is required to be financially self-sufficient. The post has become known for its financial problems. We pay more for less service while it closes thousands of offices and processing centers, and cuts jobs.

Now Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has announced the end of letter delivery on Saturdays, beginning in August. It is not clear whether Donahoe can do this without Congressional action. If he prevails it will be the most drastic reduction in service we've seen yet, eliminating millions of work hours for unionized employees already losing their jobs to "permatemps."

While it is true that the postal service has seen a drop in revenue due to the recession and the rise of email and internet transactions, the postal service suffers mainly from a manufactured crisis.

What other explanation can there be for the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA)? This law requires the Postal Service to prefund its retirement benefits 75 years in advance, in just 10 years. Imagine paying a 30-year mortgage on an expensive home in just two and a half years, or all of your paycheck going into Social Security. The post office must pay a staggering $103.7 billion by 2016 for employees who have not even been hired yet; and this is on top of current pensions. No business could survive such a mandate.

It gets worse. According to the post's Inspector General, the USPS has overpaid the Civil Service Retirement System for current retirees by billions of dollars in multiple fiscal years. These funds could be refunded to the postal service by a simple executive order. Requests for refunds and a more reasonable saving formula have been ignored. How much money will be saved by cutting Saturday letter delivery? $2 billion, a drop in the bucket that won't solve the real problem.

As citizens of the republic, we do well to ask: why does this happen? Why did legislation in the previous Congress, attempting to correct the PAEA formula, die in committee? Why does the Postmaster General not challenge these policies as he announces the elimination of union jobs, price hikes, and cuts to services that are vital to the economy and the general welfare?

This is "starve the beast" neoliberalism. The postal service is under attack because the public sector is under attack. This is a long campaign to privatize all of our economy. The notion of public ownership, of a strong, accountable public sector dedicated to service above profits and executive salaries, is under attack.

Congress helps by forcing important and popular institutions, like public schools and the postal service, to fulfill impossible mandates so they fail and go broke. We are then instructed that public agencies are not viable, and we must let business take over.

When New Zealand privatized its postal service in 1998, investors profited handsomely as money was redistributed to the private sector, but working and rural people paid the price. This is where we are heading, but the postal service must be broken first.

It is a shame that Congress, and even the postmaster general, are working towards this goal. The post office could survive and compete, and do so without the kind of bailouts that have buoyed the private sector. We just need our lawmakers to stop killing it.

Maybe we should think twice before electing politicians who profess to hate government.

[Image:  Deming's post office, built in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration.]

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Inka and dharma candy

A dharma friend from another state wrote to me,

Hi there - inquiring minds want to know ... are you having some sort of big test coming up in the PZC Dharma Room at Buddha's Birthday weekend this year? 

And my response was:

Nope, not me.  (Whew!)  

She was referring to the upcoming inka ceremony at Providence Zen Center.  A brief explanation for folks not involved in this stuff, or who practice in other zen schools.  

The Kwan Um School of Zen handles dharma transmission, the process by which a student assumes the role of a teacher, in two stages.  The first is inka.  It more or less goes like this.  Your guiding teacher might say to you, "Hey, student.  I think you should be a teacher."  Assuming the student does not jump out the window and run away immediately, the student goes and practices with five teachers in the Kwan Um school.  If the five teachers concur that the student is ready, there is a public test.  The test occurs during an inka ceremony.  It is generally held on Buddha's Birthday weekend at the head temple, Providence Zen Center.  People come from all over.  Hundreds of them.  During the ceremony, anyone present can ask the candidate a question.  If the candidate's responses are approved by the presiding teacher, the student is given the title of Ji Do Poep Sa and invited to give a talk.  A JDPS is akin to a "sensei" in Japanese-derived zen schools.  At that point, the student undergoes an undetermined period of training in the role of a teacher in Zen Master Seung Sahn's lineage: leading retreats, guiding zen centers, formally transmitting Buddhist precepts, and teaching kong-an (koan in Japanese) practice

The name of the candidate is traditionally kept secret until the ceremony, which is why my friend was curious.  I enjoy the secrecy.  It's like waiting for a Christmas present.  Who's it gonna be?  

The second stage is called dharma transmission and we'll leave that for another time.

And no, thank you, I'm not getting inka.

Really.  No thank you.

The teachers fulfill an important role in a practice community.  It is beneficial to have access to people who have been practicing for a very long time and have gone through some formal checks of their maturity and understanding.  They offer a lot of themselves, these teachers: they lead retreats, they give private interviews and public dharma talks, they teach and tell stories, and they are highly visible.  People watch how they live.  The quality of their moment-to-moment practice is measured across time, and comes across in ordinary interactions.

Inka ceremonies are happy, entertaining, inspirational events.  Even if the spectacle of inka is largely theatrical, even if "teacher" is a provisional role and we are all in fact simply practicing together, the formalities are joyous.  Zen Master Seung Sahn used to call this "dharma candy."  Although we don't want students to become goal-oriented in their practice, once in a while a celebration like this perks things up.  The "behind-meaning" of an inka ceremony might be, "If I can do this, so can you." 

On the other hand, a lot of people make a really big deal about teachers.  They come to be regarded by some as some kind of special human being.  An "enlightened" one.  It is even more intense around people with the title of "zen master."  Many people who have read books like Peter Matthiessen's Nine Headed Dragon River expect zen masters to exude mystical enlightenment in some objective way, like Soen Roshi.

There is a perennial idea that anything a "zen master" does is an expression of enlightenment.  A lot of harm comes from this idea.  It is rife with opportunity for delusion.  And abuse. 

One would like to say that people in this position don't let this go to their head -- and most do not.  Zen schools serve some important functions, not least of which is vetting people for the role of "teacher."

We are, however, talking about human beings.  There is pressure to live up to an idea, and there are temptations.  The mantle of "zen master" authority may have been abused by some back in the east but in North America the zen scandal has been elaborated into a highly publicized and sadly repetitive spectacle involving sex, money, and institutional power.  North Americans have responded to these in various ways -- leaving the community, leaving zen practice altogether, calling for teachers to be prosecuted or at least tarred and feathered; some engage in denial and concealment in order to protect institutions; some envision new institutions to police the other institutions.  What a mess.

Dharma candy is addicting for some.  There is an awful lot of unexamined desire, ambition, and jockeying around the role of the "zen master."  The hunger for recognition, lusting to sit in the position of a teacher's authority, leaning on the traditional zen teaching stick, lingering in the awe of "our students."

That desire has even led to some, shall we say, non-linear authorizations.  With a little charisma and talent, it is not hard to get some people to follow you and regard you as a teacher. 

The desire for that kind of attention is one thing.  A sincere aspiration to share your practice is another thing.  For the latter, no credentials are necessary.

An old friend of mine embodied this beautifully.  He really taught me what it was to be a senior student.  He did not look or behave like a cliche of a zen person. Yet he really helped people; and this sincerely nourished and inspired his own practice.  I could see that in him.  Through example, he taught me something about service -- about practicing for others. He gave meditation instruction and talks, he organized ceremonies, he managed the zen center, and he often lead practice himself.  Just a big, sweet, irreverent guy doing his job as a dharma teacher.  When his guiding teacher left our school to start a new organization, my friend loyally followed and continued to train with him, continued helping other students.  Eventually, he received inka from his teacher and everyone was very happy.

We lost touch for a while and lots of things happened.  He separated from his teacher, so he started a place where he could practice and teach.  Now he's got multiple temples and at some point he started calling himself a zen master.  I don't know what that's about. 

But back in the day, when we were both simply "older students," he inspired me quite a bit.

He never needed a title or a zen stick for that.

You don't need credentials to help people.  

Formal meditation practice (J., zazen; K., cham soen)

Using precepts with an open mind

Sincerity in all things

Twenty years into this zen thing, those seem like plenty to keep a person busy.

And yeah, my kong-an.

[Image: You want inka?  Here's your inka.]

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Fixes are comforts (5 danari)

When it feels like no one is understanding, try listening.

When it feels like you're plummeting, look for your feet.

When it feels like you're always trying to fix things, try leaving them alone.

When it feels like you're inherently broken, pick one thing you can work on today.

Or take a nap.  (That might be the problem.)

It's amazing the difference a glass of water can make.

These seem like fixes, but it's not about fixing.  "Fixes" are comforts. 

Last night, the audience for our show responded to things very differently than most of our audiences have previously.  They laughed at fewer things, did not applaud at the same things.  Actors remarked that they "seemed quiet" and one even said it was "a tough room" out there.

And yet no one denied that the audience enjoyed the show just as much as our other audiences.  They were simply having their own experience and responding in their own way.  I enjoy this.  They get to be who they are, and when it feels different, this can help the performers wake up and experience their own work with a refreshing immediacy.

Same with people in general, not just "audiences."  Same with the world.  Same with everything. Wake up. 

Saturday, February 02, 2013

On actors, expectations, and fears

Actors are held to certain expectations.  A few of the big ones are:

Show up on time.

Be prepared.  (Know your lines, know your blocking.)

Turn off the electronic devices and cut the chit-chat.  Rehearsal requires focus.

Be a team player.  Don't direct/boss around other actors.  Do work hard for the show's success.

If there is a code of ethics for the actor, those are in it.

On the flip side, actors also deserve certain considerations.  A safe place to do the work, access to a bathroom, reasonable time and accommodation, things like that.  Usually, actors want the show to go on and will put up with tough circumstances if they feel, at least, like there is some mutual respect.  (On an independent film shoot, I had to change out of my clothes and into a costume outdoors early on a cold morning -- I didn't mind that much because I knew the people I was working for, knew what had happened, and sucked it up.)

That can be abused, however.

Coming off the stage in my current show, heading towards the dressing room to doff my sweaty costume, someone said, "Don't take your costumes off."


"They're going to shoot some video."

They who?  What?  Presumably, this had something to do with the young fellow who was videotaping our play.   The theatre was filled with patrons, socializing and greeting one another; a couple of the actors had gone out, still in costume, to greet friends.

Details on what we were doing and how soon were scanty, no one I asked seemed to know.  It was getting close to 10:30 and there was an hour's drive between me, my son with a temperature of 101, and bed.   Several minutes later there did not appear to be much progress and so I began stripping my costume.  You know how these things go: as soon as I did that, the message came back that we were going to assemble on the stage.  My irritation was visible but I sucked it up.  The shoot was disorganized and silly but it was soon over.

In a private message, I followed up with the director and producer.  Acknowledged  that I had been visibly annoyed and explained all I really wanted was a little notice and discussion about something like that.  (It was presented as a command, immediately following a performance.)  It was short, polite, ended with some humor.  Quiet innocuous and reasonable.

Sadly, the response (from my director) was unkind.  First claiming that I had been told (nope).  Then belittling what I was concerned about.  ("It was only three minutes!"  Which, besides being false, is not the point.)  And then, an essay about how the video was for a family member stationed in Afghanistan followed by a summary of all the tragedies in the director's family.  Wow.  (Read: "I'm now going to make you feel like shit for speaking up.")

A lot of actors, eager to be cast and to work anywhere they can, get accustomed to the idea that actors are low in status and that anything goes.  I remember working on an Equity show in Boston in 2001 -- a show under the jurisdiction of the actor's union, mind you -- in which an actor who was asked to ride a small bicycle in a fast, tight circle on a raked stage fell off and sustained a serious injury.  I saw her lying on the ground, in pain.  And she was apologizing.  Even with union membership, the actor was terrified that this accident meant she would not get cast again.  She was weeping and apologizing while she waited, on the floor, for an ambulance.  In 2001.  She spent the next several weeks of her life in a wheelchair.

Things are much better for actors now than they were 100 years ago (when Actors Equity was founded) but there is still some residual fear of reprisal that prompts actors to put up with things they really shouldn't, or to be silent when they need not.

My director is not a bad person.  But this was out of line.  Denial, belittling, and shaming an actor for asking appropriate questions are not unheard of -- but they are not okay.   If you, the actor, are doing your job and holding yourself to a high standard, you have the right to speak up (politely) and ask questions or express concerns related to the work.  That's true in amateur theatre (where you are a volunteer helping the theatre make money, after all).  It's true in semi- and professional theatre as well.  It's true on a film set.

You are an actor, you are doing your job, and you matter.