Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Theology with Martini and Ice Cream

Our rector at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, told us of his days as a young lawyer in New Orleans, when the revered senior partner took him to lunch.  The elder man explained how his doctor forbade his usual lunch of martini, favorite salad, favorite entree, and ice cream with chocolate sauce. The old man told the waiter, "Just bring me a martini and ice cream with chocolate sauce."

The rector, Fr. Roger Allen, told us not to read Scripture that way.  We can't have just the parts that make us feel good and skip all the protein and vegetables. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Peace > Tranquillity: Wisdom
from Forward Day by Day

The tri-monthly publication Forward Day by Day provides readers with responses to quotations from the Episcopal Church's daily schedule of assigned readings from Scripture.  These are helpful for me every morning, but some I mark for future reference. Here are some of those from the issue that started with a reading for November 1, 2015.

[Photo: from hdwallpapers.cat]

The reflections for November are by Kathleen Clark, who has worked in missions and ministries as far away as Hong Kong.  She is a graduate of the Education for Ministry program (EfM), as am I, and her work there shows in the ways she gets "into the world" of the scriptures.

Mt 13:40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  Clark is reminded of her time weeding a community garden and burning the refuse. Where others see this passage as a frightful image of punishment, she sees God weeding out the causes of sin, as we can do ourselves, "weeding" our spiritual lives.

Mt 13:44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Clark asks the EfM question, who am I in this story?  "Am I like the previous owner of the field, oblivious to what I already own, ignorant of my neglect?"

Mt. 16:15. [Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Clark imagines someone asking us to explain Jesus, "Who do YOU say Jesus is?"  This called to mind a time when that did happen to me, at a T.G.I.F. with a grown Hindu man, formerly a middle school student in my class.  My own answer centered on "the Word," the best  or fullest expression yet of a God who also expresses Himself daily in our lives, and historically in other religious traditions and wisdom.

Mt. 16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  Clark refers to Samuel Coleridge's poem "The Good, Great Man," a dialogue in which one friend observes that "good, great men" seldom get the reward heaped on less honorable ones.  But the second friend responds, in Clark's words, "that goodness and greatness are not means, but ends."  The good, great man does have three treasures: love, light, and calm thoughts.  Clark asks, "That sounds like something Jesus might agree with, don't you think?"

The reflections for the month of December were written by Lelanda Lee, a speaker and community organizer on behalf of human rights.

Mt. 21:22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.  Lee reminds us that prayer is a conversation, that "God expects us to listen, too."  So it's not a magical incantation.  "When we pray with faith, we are asking that God's will be done, not ours."  I guess she would agree that we don't pray to get what we want from God; we pray for God to get what He wants from us.

Mt. 25:36 I was in prison and you visited me.  This struck me because I visited Parchman Prison in Mississippi with 8th graders back in the 1980s and came away feeling that both the inmates and the staff were imprisoned there.  I thought then that I might one day be able to bring something else to the table, there.  Lee urges us to do just that, but points out that "prison" doesn't necessarily refer to a "correctional facility."  It's a metaphor as well for "physical limitations, despair, depression, or mental illness."

Jeremy Sierra, author of January's reflections, edits publications for Trinity Church, Wall Street, famous for its role as a haven for first responders in the weeks after 9/11/2001.

Ephesians 6:15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  Sierra conjures the "quiet, still lake" that comes to his mind when he thinks of "peace," before he recalls that nature is not always tranquil, and neither is peace. We mustn't confuse peace with stillness.  "Peace does indeed encompass (and actually requires) movement and change."  Segregation in our communities by race, income, or party may be "stillness" but not "peace," which requires breaking barriers and movement.  "We better put some shoes on our feet because we have a gospel of peace to proclaim."

Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.  After observing how un-glamorous sheepdom is, Sierra has to acknowledge that, even at his most active moments when he appears to be a leader, he can't take credit. "Other people -- my parents, friends, or the men and women throughout history who have learned, studied, served, and loved -- make my life possible."  So even when he's a tiger, he's "one sheep in the flock of humanity," defined by connections to others.

Mt 10:19 Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say....  Sierra takes this passage as a reminder of what he has learned from experience:  "when we speak out of love, saying something is better than remaining silent."   Just this morning, as I got red-faced thinking what I might say, not out of love, but out of exasperation, I reminded myself that it's better to stay silent.  But Sierra's observation applies when we "speak to power" or when others need comfort.  There may not be right or effective words to say, "but the fact that we have the courage to speak (and that we do so out of love) is often enough to make a difference."

John 5:17  My Father is still working, and I also am working.  Sierra admits that he used to be disturbed by the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, confirmed by the Jesus in John.  Now, it's the other way around.  His point is that faith is a work in progress, and understanding will change.  When I was a college-aged fundamentalist, Professor John DiCorcia shook me up by saying just that, in secular terms:  "If you still believe in five years what you believe now, your brain is dead."  I could see the truth in that; but I'd been taught that deviation or error in any part of my belief system meant a fall from grace.  What a perversion of the Gospel that is!

While I'm at it, this is also a good verse to remember when a church tries to just hold on to what it's always done.  Pope Benedict has just announced a panel to look into accepting women as deacons, but, as for ordination to priesthood, he says, "That door is closed."  Well, as the Pope once said of gays, "Who am I to judge?"

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Glenn Beck Speaks My Mind

Turning NPR on my radio during Weekend Edition Saturday yesterday, I heard a calm voice expressing things that I've been yelling at my dashboard for months.  Only at the end, I learned that it was Glenn Beck, a conservative media performer who rubbed me the wrong way so long ago that I forget why. 

[Link to a transcript and podcast here.  Photo: Glenn Beck at Salon.Com]

About Donald Trump, Beck says he knows little except that he's "self-absorbed" and "driven by himself," and not a "constitutionalist."  Check, check, and check.  Trump has "deep socialist leanings" while being a nationalist and populist, a combination that "never ends well" in history.   

Asked if it's time for a new party, Beck said what I've been feeling for fifteen years or so: "I don't even know who the Republican party is anymore."

On another hot-button issue of today, Beck posited a situation where everyone at the table gets a slice of pie but you.  When you object, "My pie matters," the others who answer "all pie matters" just haven't listened.  While Beck disagrees with an anti-capitalist agenda among some who speak under the name "Black Lives Matter," he supports the basic idea.

I'm reminded of when I heard conservative commentator Neil Boortz shut down a fan who pressed him to run for public office.  Boortz said with astounding frankness that he was an entertainer, paid for saying provocative things; he was in no way interested in public office.  So Glenn Beck may be speaking his true mind on NPR, and playing a part in his other public venues.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Dogless Days of August

Two weeks is longer than I've lived away from any dog since 1987. Six dogless days in, I'm ready to quit.

Mia is at Tenasity summer camp, learning to play well with other dogs, and I'm sure the trainers are exhausting her with down-staying, running the obstacle course, and tussling with other dogs.  This is good for her.  In June and July, I've been too busy biking, reading, blogging, to play tug of war with her nearly so much as she'd like.  She's probably sleeping better than ever, certainly better than I.

I, meanwhile, am a teacher on the last day before we report for duty, "ricocheting around the room," as Billy Collins once wrote.  Lesson plans to update, scripts to preview, pine straw to finish laying down in the yard, weeds to pull already poking up through the pine straw that I did lay down last month: and as I wander listlessly from one work station to another, I miss Mia's eyes.   Even if she stayed curled up in her bed, she kept track, and I kept checking up on her.  Is it just me, or do we all need an audience?

I get ice for a drink; she doesn't come running for a piece.  I come home, and she's not at the top of the stairs to celebrate. I finish making a meal, and soak the skillet, unlicked.  Now I believe the 70s love song by Bacharach and David:  "A house is not a home / when there's no one there...."

Her absence has emboldened the neighborhood squirrels.  One has learned to scale my kitchen window, leap at the bird feeder, and spill its contents for his two buddies to sample. I shouldn't complain: I put the feeder up to attract little friends to keep Mia entertained when I was away.  She loves to watch the squirrels from behind the doggie door, to pounce just when she feels like it.  Now I'm the one running out there every ten minutes.  

My colleagues and I shake our heads over "helicopter parents."  But now I sympathize.  If I could get 24-hour monitoring, I'd use it.   Is she learning?  Has she made friends?  Will she even remember me when I come to pick her up?  Will I fail to sustain her new discipline -- or her interest? 

Hurry, August.  Let's get this over with.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jason Bourne:
Tech, Texting, and Sub-text

Jason Bourne, a thrill-a-minute for sure, may be the first action film I've seen where the ratio of smart-phone use to firepower is something like 15:1.  A third of the movie is about opening a file.  The overall scheme concerns the CIA's plan to use a popular social media company to monitor every American all the time, targeting the company's scrupulous CEO.  Bourne uses phones to hack into fire alarms and to listen in to the car ahead of his.   The film turns on the axis of Bourne's relationship with the CIA tech director who tries to "bring him in," developed through reading files, studying screen shots, and sending text messages. They don't say more than ten lines to each other face-to-face in the whole movie. 

Tech provides more than plot points.  Throughout the movie, our hero's every move is monitored by the CIA on screens that serve the double purpose of helping the audience, with aerial views and animated street maps, to comprehend chaotic action during car chase scenes through a riot in Athens and on the wrong side of the Las Vegas strip. An earlier generation of writers might have used a narrator, a Greek chorus, or flashing text cards, e.g., "Meanwhile, back in Berlin...."

Tech is part of what makes Jason Bourne a thrill for the mind as much as for the gut.  Because we get four or five different layers of views of every event -- live action, video screen, graphic diagrams, human conversation, text messages -- our minds are moving along several different tracks at once.

The few laughs in the grim world of Bourne come when Tommy Lee Jones exploits the subtext of a situation.  He can play friendly, charming, forgiving, warm -- but we know what he knows from screens and digital voices, and we know what the sly dog is covering up. 

Before seeing Bourne, I already had some experience with stories shaped by technology.  My drama students collaborate on original plays, and they love their cell phones. For a comedy we called Txt, written when "texting" was new, we projected text messages on a screen above the stage, finding humor in cute text-speak interpretations of the action. In our murder mystery Under the Surface, we had to explain why the missing character did not text her friends.  This year, tech was central to our four-character comedy Crash, which concerned a hacker's plot to turn a game designer's apocalyptic scenario real.

We also learned what Bourne's creators know, how easy it is to turn tech into magic. In our play, we needed a laptop at a Krispy Kreme to shut down America's power grid.  We needed only to say that we hacked the system and implanted a "worm," and our magic was plausible.  In Jason Bourne, when the CIA chief says that they must delete the files on a laptop in Berlin, the tech director says, "We can do it -- because they have a phone."  My friend Suzanne and I both said, "Huh???"  But the story rolled over our doubts at break-neck speed.

Smart phones are going to be the best thing for drama since Euripides discovered the deus ex machina.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Aurora Theatre Hits "the Heights"

[Photo collage (clockwise from top left): Felicia Hernandez as "Abuela Claudia," Diana Rodriguez as "Nina," Diego Klock-Perez as "Usnavi," Julissa Sabino as "Vanessa," Rodriguez, and Garrett Turner, who plays "Benny."]

On opening night for In the Heights at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Georgia, it took until the second-act song "Carnaval de Barrio" for the older white man in the red-striped short sleeved shirt in the front row to get into it.  But by then he was on board, laughing and clapping along with the beat, notwithstanding that the beat was calypso and that characters waved flags from Caribbean and Latin American countries of origin.

Earlier, he'd sat cross-armed and stony-faced.  Though I'm younger, even I remember Lawrenceville as a little place way the heck out from Atlanta.  Now it's just another exit for Atlanta commuters. So this guy looked like he'd awakened in a foreign land.  Sensitive to that feeling, the Aurora Theatre's producer had almost apologized to her opening night crowd of white, older season subscribers for doing a show about the hip-hop generation in Washington Heights.  But she said that there was no betrayal of the theatre's mission to "reflect the community," because an invited audience of local high school groups earlier that week had been thrilled to see themselves reflected on stage: This is the way we are, now.  

She needn't have worried.  The show builds bridges from its first moments, to people like Mr. Red Shirt, to people who don't like musicals, to people who think they don't like new musicals, and to people like me, for whom hip-hop is as foreign as Spanish.

So it may suggest a metaphor that Washington Bridge takes center stage on a backdrop between two authentic-looking facades of apartment/shop buildings.  Designer Shannon Robert somehow packed the tall, narrow stage with four stories of workable windows, doors, fire escapes, and rolling window grate for the lead character's bodega, "just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop." 

Hip-hop aside, the opener is traditional as "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.   Our guide to the neighborhood is bodega-owner "Usnavi," a young man whose "syntax is highly complicated / cuz [he] emigrated" from the Dominican Republic, land of his late parents, where he someday wants to return.  He tells us in rapid-fire, intricately rhymed lyrics about his neighbors as he interacts with their early-morning routines.  By the end of the first number, we know some twelve characters of consequence to the story.

We also know that we like these people.  A variety of characters younger, older, and older still wear fedora, or tight skirts, or pants sagging, or dress shirt buttoned and neck-tied.  But they all are friendly; they all more or less take care of each other;  they all banter with good humor.  Aurora Theatre has also found a cast of actors to embody them who can all dance, some with balletic strength and grace; one (Joseph Pendergrast) with acrobatic break-dancing skill; all with energy and precision.  The voices are all strong, enunciating the spoken verses, reaching the highs and lows, louds and softs of the sung ballads and anthems.  They made it look easy.  By the end, Mr. Red Shirt and I were in awe of these young actors (and a few older ones) for their skill, and, Lord knows, their stamina.

Composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (now world-famous for Hamilton) signals that he knows the Tradition early on.  At mention of the "A" train, Miranda's supple accompaniment accommodates a couple measures of Billy Strayhorn's tune for the Ellington band; moments later, telling us it's "too darn hot," Usnavi salutes "his man" -- or is it Miranda's man? -- Cole Porter.  Many of the characters sing full-throated Broadway songs.  Like the street vendors whose songs evoked daily life of the community in Porgy and Bess, Miranda gives a prominent role to the wandering "Piragua" man who sings his sales pitch for flavored ice cones.  Many of the songs in act one are of the "I want" type -- "Breathe" for "Nina," "Inutil (Useless)" for her father, "It Won't Be Long Now" for Vanessa, and everyone's verses in the song about winning the lottery, "96,000."  Other songs are little one-act plays with musically-heightened sung dialogue, in the manner of Stephen Sondheim, such as "Benny's Dispatch" (a love song wrapped inside instructions to taxi drivers), a Spanish lesson that turns erotic in "Sunrise," and the comic scene between Usnavi and his would-be lover Vanessa, "Champagne."   Even when Miranda repeats a phrase in the manner of a pop song with a hook, it's never just repeated, but takes on different meanings, such as the phrase "Everything I Know," or the related words "inutil," "useless," and, even before the power goes out, "powerless." 

The YouTube program Musical Theatre Mash points out how In the Heights honors a tradition even older than classic American musicals, namely, Aristotle's three unities.  There's unity of place: Except when a shift in lights turns the street to the interior of a dance club, all the action takes place on one corner of one street.  Book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes also respects the classical unity of time, as the story unfolds over one 4th of July weekend. There's also a unity of action, as the characters who want so much in act one break through in act two, with the catalyst of a cataclysmic power outage.

Thanks to friend Susan for noticing an homage to Dorothy's "silver slippers" in the original book of The Wizard of Oz:  the character who realizes that what he sought elsewhere is right there at home is also wearing silver high-tops.   

So, Mr. Red Shirt, the small town of Lawrenceville, and I, have heard the unfamiliar sounds of hip-hop in Lin-Manuel Miranda's distant neighborhood of Washington Heights, and it feels to us like home.

See my earlier reflection on Lin-Manuel Miranda's work, As If Hamilton Needed More Raves

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Every Minor Detail's a Major Decision:
Two Books on Sondheim and Company

At age 15, a boy has incredible capacity for absorbing trivial knowledge in his field of interest.  For some, it's sports statistics; for me, it was Broadway musicals, particularly those of Stephen Sondheim.  I got Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co. in its first edition (1974), which told how Sondheim and his collaborators created shows from West Side Story to A Little Night Music.  I curled up in my stuffed chair to read it straight through.  But before Mom called for dinner, I'd absorbed more than backstage backstories; I'd learned a whole ethos of artistic collaboration that has motivated me ever since.

Zadan then was very young, but he'd co-produced the first of many star-studded tributes to Sondheim.  He interviewed Sondheim, librettists and directors of his shows,  as we'd expect.  He interviewed performers, as we'd hope.  But he also interviewed set designers, music publishers, orchestra conductors, poster designers, casting directors, and costumers.  Through all their perspectives, which sometimes contradict each other, we understand how, in Sondheim's own line from Sunday in the Park with George, "Every minor detail is a major decision. / Have to keep things in scale, / Have to hold to your vision."

Even forty-plus years later, every page is familiar to me.  If I open the book at random, I'm going to find a tidbit about the kind of imagination and sweating of details that went into making every moment of the show "hold to [their] vision."  Here are a few examples I selected from leafing through the second edition of the book, just now:

James Goldman, librettist for Follies, on the song "Who's That Woman?" in which a young chorus first mirrors then joins in with the chorus of older women at the reunion of Follies girls:  "The physical impression you got from that was anguishing. To see the decay of the flesh -- all those bright, young beautiful girls and their lovely bodies with all the sense of youth and the promise of what's to come contrasted against what actually became of it. That's devastating... and very movielike" (Zadan 141).

Patricia Birch, dance director for Pacific Overtures, on staging "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," Sondheim's opener that explains 19th century Japanese society: "In the middle of it, there was a little puddle of people moving straight at us.   And I had always had the image from the minute I started that these were the people on the island of Japan.  Of course, the thing with Steve's numbers is that he gives you so many images to work from, so you're not just building something for the sake of building something" (216).

Michael Bennett, dance director for Company, on requesting Sondheim to write a new song that would repeat so much that it becomes "grating": "[Steve] then wrote 'What Would We Do Without You?'  And I'm not saying that all these married couples aren't sincere about caring for Bobby in the show, but you need more than friendships or it becomes the old song and dance routine.  The only thing that Steve and I had any disagreement on ... was the tug-of-war in that number. ...I felt that's where Bobby was. I thought it worked" (123).

Jonathan Tunick, orchestrator of Follies, is praised by Sondheim for his work on the song "In Buddy's Eyes":  The actress Dorothy Collins says in the song "that everything is just wonderful and she's ... so happily married. Nothing in the lyric, not a word tells you that maybe it isn't true. [But] there is something in the orchestration.  ... Jonathan has orchestrated it so that every phrase in the song which refers to her husband is dry, all woodwinds.  Whenever she refers to herself, it's all strings again" (157).  Tunick explains how he closed that song with "a penetrating cold sound... a combination of muted trumpets and sometimes bells."

Another book, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, is by Ted Chapin, who worked as director Hal Prince's personal assistant in 1971, beginning as Prince's team was preparing for its first rehearsals.  (For what I learned in a book about Hal Prince, link here.) Based on his journal from the time, he chronicles the anxieties of the performers and creators, the many revisions and experiments, and the mistakes.  Again, we see how much thought goes into every detail, and also how much grinding work:

Michael Bennett, dance director, explains to the cast why their entrances during the "Prologue" must be precisely choreographed and timed to the beat, even though it's not a "dance":  "The show is really about time and what it does to people, so we must establish that we are going to stop it at will, turn it back and twist it around whenever we desire. I realize that crossing on a count of eight can be tricky, but I want everyone to become so well drilled that it never looks like anyone is counting" (Chapin 58).  Weeks and nearly 200 pages later, Bennett is still re-staging the Prologue. 

Hal Prince, director, decides after a dozen preview performances for audiences (and weeks of rehearsals and revisions) that the song "Can That Boy Fox Trot" isn't working and must be replaced, but Sondheim needs something to write about.  The character "Carlotta Campion," was played by the show's biggest "star" Yvonne De Carlo, whose career peaked in the 1950s when she played sultry beauties in Hollywood films.  More recently, she'd starred as  "Lily" in the campy TV series The Munsters, which had been cancelled.  The only reason she needed a song was that the audience would expect the biggest star to sing one.  Sondheim gets the assignment to write one on page 181; Sondheim shows up on page 234 with the finished manuscript of a new song "I'm Still Here," which Chapin has the task of typing.  He recreates for us what he was thinking as he typed:

I was astounded.  The song just kept delivering brilliant images of events and people from the 1930s and forties, all woven into a passionate and dramatic statement of survival.  Wow, I thought, and this from a fairly simple-minded character who had previously sung a clever song with one big double-entendre joke and some tossed-off quips about being a has been.  Now we're learning who she was, and it was really good.  ... In some ways the song seemed to be as much about Yvonne De Carlo herself as it was about Carlotta Campion ... which would add a layer of pathos to the performance....
Here, I'm sure that Chapin is thinking of these lines from Sondheim's lyric:

First, you're another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career to career.
I'm almost through my memoir,
And I'm here.  (Sondheim, "I'm Still Here")

Chapin continues:
He had been observing her, I thought, and he must have taken in a lot of who Yvonne was to create a piece of material that would give such depth to her character in so emotional a way. (Steve later claimed that Joan Crawford, not Yvonne, was his inspiration.)  ... Little did I or any of us know then that it would become one of Sondheim's most performed songs, and one whose sentiments, first typed that day by a twenty-year-old gofer, would continue to have resonance for years to come.  (237)

According to Chapin, who got it from Yvonne, Hal Prince was so pleased to hear her sing it the first time that he cried (241).  To tell you the truth, I get choked up reading about this, too, just from the satisfaction of seeing how music, lyrics, character, actress, rehearsal process, pacing of the script, audience reactions, all come together for marvelous, memorable, lasting effect.

Chapin tells us how the cast gathered at a restaurant in Boston to hear Hal Prince read their first review, by Samuel Hirsch of the Boston Herald Traveler. 

There's a magic feeling [that] comes over you when a new musical opens and lets you know all's well within the first few minutes.  You sense it's going to be a special evening because the talents of the men and women who conceived it and who put it all together and are playing it with sure skill and good taste let you know immediately that you're watching something extraordinary take place.  (189)

Amen.  I'm grateful to Chapin for his in-depth look at the creation of Follies, and to Zadan for teaching me all those years ago that enjoying the show is only icing on the cake; perceiving the thought and work that went into making the show is what makes it "something extraordinary."