Monday, August 31, 2009

Anybody But David, continued

It's worse than we thought, and the New York State Governor needs to be seen not as mediocre, but malignant. According to the Albany Times Union's James Odato, Governor Patterson is not only coasting on a career built on cronyism and inside-dealing, he's trying to expand its corrosive influence:
Gov. David Paterson and Civil Service Commissioner Nancy Groenwegen briefly seized a new power to let agency heads appoint people they wanted to hundreds of jobs. But State Judge Joseph Teresi's July 25 order in a lawsuit shot down their move to reclassify professional titles to be exempt from civil service list hiring.

The action, dealing with 29 medical titles held by 1,700 people, would have "opened the floodgates for the placement of many other titles which require licensure," said Public Employees Federation President Kenneth Brynien, who sued Groenwegen, Paterson and Civil Service.

Teresi didn't go along with Groenwegen's argument that it is difficult to recruit from the civil service test list to hire physicians, psychiatrists, dentists and veterinarians so the posts should be reclassified as "noncompetitive," meaning no one would have to take a test and qualify based on their scores. The judge ruled the change would "have broad implications" allowing for "reclassification of essentially all licensed and certified professionals."

Groenwegen has been passionate about the matter and is considering appeal. "We clearly believe the decision was wrong," she said. "This does raise a fundamental question of how do you define a merit system in 2009?" She said she respects PEF's concerns about the dismantling of the traditional merit system but the constitution allows for alternatives to tests to promote nimbleness and flexibility in hiring.

Insiders say she's sought the changes as a good way to ensure minority hiring and greater diversity in the state work force, but she says that's not the motivation. The key reason is that a civil service exam isn't the best way to find the best people and is redundant because the doctors already proved their qualifications by gaining licenses and graduating from academic institutions, she said. The commissioner is up against a lot of skeptics.

Darcy Wells, a spokeswoman for PEF, said if the jobs became noncompetitive it "would open the doors to cronyism."
Well, fantastic. As if it wasn't bad enough that the State's coffers are being bled dry by the denizens of the Assembly who want nothing more than to stuff their pockets at a break-neck pace: apparently he wants to add to the ranks of those who think entering public service gives you a license to raid the till at will.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

makes one sad

Old news now, but Sigh. We've already delved into this a bit, but here's yet another example. I was a big supporter of Edwards in the 2008 primaries -- even sent him money, which I almost never do. Clearly, I'm as big a sucker as everyone else...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

netflix magic revealed (kind of)

If you've ever wondered what it's like to work in a Netflix warehouse, The Chicago Tribune's Christopher Borrelli has all the answers...

Friday, August 28, 2009

crazy like an (angry) fox (news)?

I've noted before that anti-government conspiracy theorists feed the big lie of an all-encompassing New World Order to feed their own inherent laziness. Conor Friedersdorf over at Doublethink Online has a different take -- essentially, that erecting straw men and angrily thrashing them down is more therapeutic for an angry political right than carefully reasoned debate.
The message delivered by Breitbart, Sean Hannity and other conservative commentators doesn’t merely misinform—it feeds a victim mentality on the right. In the talk radio telling, the liberal cultural elite isn’t merely wrong—it is nefarious, and it hates “real Americans.” That Breitbart calls the cultural left “totalitarians” is instructive. The word implies that the left is supreme, ruthless, and all-powerful. Pushing back from within existing cultural institutions is futile; conservatives might as well withdraw into an ideologically safe dugout, nurse their resentments, and pretend that the height of courage is picking off the least careful leftists with the rhetorical equivalent of sniper fire.

This needless retreat is among the biggest obstacles the right faces as it attempts to engage American culture on a more equal footing. Reversing its course depends on providing young conservatives with a less hysterical, more accurate assessment of their prospects: Ignore Andrew Breitbart! Should you pursue your living in entertainment or the press, you will be outnumbered ideologically. But so long as you conduct yourself professionally, possess talent commensurate with your peers, and produce good work—behaving as a professional, not a propagandist—you’ll go far whatever your personal politics. You’ll also meet a lot of nice people, many of them liberals, who’ll help you along the way.
BO-RING! Let's go yell at a congressman.

(For the record, I still like my lazy hillbilly stereotype for the conspiracy theorists. It's funnier.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

pigeonholing the penis-less (part III)

A two-fer on the running question of whether female performers have to make a choice between being pretty or funny. Correspondent One:
I play a lot "funny" characters. Once I was told by a director not to sacrifice my beauty in the physicality of the funny-but not to be less comedic.However, at auditions is when it is hard to be accepted as both- even when that is what they're looking for.

Looks/ethnicity, almost always, and I am at all the auditions with the same blondes all the time. Brain has nothing to do with it... Although, I have grown to know a number of these blonde girls I go to auditions with and they are a relatively intelligent crew.
Correspondent Two:
i think that there is certainly truth to women being labeled either pretty or funny, with extraordinarily little crossover (hence one of the reasons i burnt out of the profession, though admittedly i did not have the drive that some do)


Some of the Spanish in West Side Story is going back to English:
In the current Broadway revival of “West Side Story” the creative team drew widespread notice this spring for having Lin-Manuel Miranda translate some English lyrics by Stephen Sondheim into Spanish, as part of a greater attempt at authenticity for Puerto Rican characters like Anita. Yet this summer the show’s director, Arthur Laurents, and some of the producers found that the Spanish lyrics were not jolting audiences the way they had hoped — nor paying off in the next scene when the white Jets gang members try to rape Anita.


After discussions among Mr. Laurents, the producers and some of the actors, most of the lyrics in “A Boy Like That” were converted back to English beginning with last Thursday’s performance; the decision was announced Tuesday. A few lines in “I Feel Pretty,” Maria’s Act II opening number, also reverted to English, although Maria (played by Josefina Scaglione) still delivers most of the song in Spanish.
I saw this earlier this year, and I -- along with just about everybody -- was really rooting for it to be a triumph. Among other things I'm a huge Bernstein fan, and while I'm not a huge fan of musicals, I'm a huge fan of THIS musical. And I, along with just about everybody, was disappointed with what I saw. Every element of the production is impressive, but it's not the visceral kick to the gut that it could be: instead it's a lot of impressive elements that don't cohere into an electric whole.

I never had a problem with the Spanish, but along with everything else it wasn't taken to its full potential. The shift from English to Spanish, I thought, should have been the result of emotional distress: Maria should revert to Spanish with Anita because she's so upset that her clunky English can't get the job done. Instead it was a very ostentatious shift that doesn't serve the play so much as serve the director and producer, who use it to wink at us as if to say: "Aren't we clever in multicultural 2009?"

The fact that changing it back to English has more to do with an audience's reaction (or an audience "getting it") than serving the play speaks volumes about how arbitrary and half-baked the decision was in the first place.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy, R.I.P.

Edward Moore Kennedy, 1932 - 2009.

It will be decades before historians take a proper focus on his life and career (along with a progressive legacy and extensive legislative history in his 46-year Senate career, his final accomplishment is still up for a vote this fall with health care reform, after all), but at first blush the loss of this legislative lion lays bare the central paradox to American democracy: in our mythology, even our brightest stars seem to be cut from a different cloth than the rest of us.

Born into privilege, the scion of a political dynasty, with a Senate seat his family saw as private property, he was nevertheless an advocate of the lowest of the low. It's a nagging problem, but one I would prefer to examine with him still among us. (If for no other reason than the man sure knew how to deliver a speech.)

get your laptop off my lawn!

I tend to look at the entertainment section of the BBC News website for two things: to see if there's any news about the Mighty Boosh, or any news about Amy Winehouse. I'm sad when there's nothing of the former, and happy about none on the latter -- if she's not in the news, then she's still alive, and maybe we'll get another album someday.

So it was only accidentally that I found Ewan Spence, technology writer for BBC News online, noting the use of technology (specifically, the internet), in shows premiering at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival:
It would seem from this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival that the internet is as attractive as Burns' flower or Shakespeare's dark lady. For many modern artists the muse lurks online, in the web of social networks, instant messages and distant friends.
Incorporating plays or the internet into theater is, of course, nothing new. But it's always hilarious to try an describe a paradigm shift from the inside, and Spence tries gamely:
Far from turning us into a nation of reclusive typists, the internet is proving to be a rich catalyst of emotive experiences and settings for playwrights to explore the age old worries of life, love, tragedy and humanity.
He trots out as an exhibit one this year's Fringe shows, "Chat! The Internet Musical," the use of exclamation points in the title alone smack of a-tad-too-desperate attempt to clutch at the essence of the zeitgeist:
Chat! looks at characters creating alter-egos of themselves and hiding their online activities from each other...
Without "online," that's a rough approximation of plots that pre-date the internet (or electricity, even), such as Troilus and Cressida and Cyrano de Bergerac, to grasp at ready examples.
There is the familiar bugaboo of staging online events:
The staging of the online action, with the actors looking out at the audience during the chat scenes means they never make eye contact with others on stage.
"It made me much more self conscious" said lead actor Nic McQuillan. "More aware of your personal space, your hands and how it is seen by the audience.
"And for the audience it changes how you perceive the characters," he said. "It makes you more aware when eye contact is made, when characters interact in the physical world."
I've performed in a few productions that attempted to stage online "chats"; I've yet to see anyone nail it. (Although some have come close.) I'm not going to hold my breath for the breakthrough: very few writers have nailed convincing phone dialog (the type where you only hear one end of the conversation) and we've had that technology for a century or so.

Even though phone conversations have always looked hokey onstage, that hasn't prevented thousands upon thousands of playwrights from using them; that's because the phone call as a plot devise is too useful. And that's all phones are: plot devices, tools. So is the internet. It's new, and revolutionary, and will radically change how we do things, but it doesn't fundamentally change who we are. Every technical breakthrough is mistaken by an artist as the dawn of a new man (just look at what the steam locomotive did to JMW Turner); but after the uproar has died down, we're still the same hateful, horny, hilarious creatures we were before -- albeit with longer life expectancy and new ways of killing and disfiguring ourselves.

Spence's closing words -- intended, no doubt, as climactic revelation -- instead read as boilerplate, dusted off every century or so:
What does seem to be common to these and other pieces at the Fringe is the internet bringing out the worst in people, as if it was a malevolent force.
Substitute "internet" with "money," "love," "power" ... you've got almost every good play ever written. The context keeps changing, but the essence stays the same.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Anybody But David (part 3) -- now with extra David!

Hoo, boy. This might be the last I write about this, because we're starting to get into that Alice-in-Wonderland effect that happens when you try to grapple with race in America: it's hard to nail down an argument about terms of identity that imaginary to begin with. People ostensibly make one point, and end up saying the exact opposite.

New York City's First Black Mayor® has weighed in (he's in the Shut Up, David Camp -- kind of):
David N. Dinkins, New York City’s first black mayor, offered some blunt advice on Monday to David A. Paterson, New York State’s first black governor: Don’t accuse your critics of racism. [...]

Mr. Dinkins, who has been close to the Paterson family for decades, took issue with the governor’s comments.

“Definitely he should get off the racist thing,” Mr. Dinkins said. “Right or wrong, it’s a fight you sure can’t win.”
Okay! Yes! Because when we start blaming people's innate racism for their actions, We All Lose, right?
Mr. Dinkins also questioned whether Mr. Paterson really believed there was an orchestrated, biased campaign against him in the news media. “I don’t think he means they’re picking on him because he is black,” Mr. Dinkins said. “I suspect he more means, were he not black — and maybe it’s pretty hard to make the distinction — those kind of comments would not have been made.”
I'm so glad we brought this discussion back to the big issues, and -- wait, what? They're not going after him because he's black, but they are treating him differently because he's not white. You really quashed that fire, Mr. Mayor. Thanks. Let the madness re-commence! Governor Patterson, perhaps you'd like to clarify your remarks?
“Part of what I feel is that one very successful minority is permissible, but when you see too many success stories, then some people get nervous.”
Yeah, you're right -- we really can't get our heads around this powerful-black-male-politician thing. We don't have any frame of reference for this, so you'll have to accept a gradualist approach. Just a couple athletes, entertainers, businessmen, and politicians. But not too many -- white America can't handle it -- slow down. Fantastic.

No Real Sense of History
Cozy Insulated Upbringing into Powerful Political Family
A Career of Self-Dealing Albany Politics
Completely Out of Touch.

Ladies and Gentlemen of New York State, your Honorable Governor.

are there any limitations to presidential power left? (pt. 3)

No. From the August 8 New York Times.:
President Obama has issued signing statements claiming the authority to bypass dozens of provisions of bills enacted into law since he took office, provoking mounting criticism by lawmakers from both parties.

President George W. Bush, citing expansive theories about his constitutional powers, set off a national debate in 2006 over the propriety of signing statements — instructions to executive officials about how to interpret and put in place new laws — after he used them to assert that he could authorize officials to bypass laws like a torture ban and oversight provisions of the USA Patriot Act.

In the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush’s use of signing statements an “abuse,” and said he would issue them with greater restraint. The Obama administration says the signing statements the president has signed so far, challenging portions of five bills, have been based on mainstream interpretations of the Constitution and echo reservations routinely expressed by presidents of both parties.
And of course this was published on that date.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Anybody But David, part 2

Aw, sheeeeeeet.
After a meeting on Long Island on Friday with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the state Republican Party chairman, Joseph N. Mondello, has decided to call it quits, but he will remain chairman of the Nassau County Republican Party, a party official said Monday.

Mr. Mondello’s decision, and Mr. Giuliani’s involvement in it, comes as the latest evidence that the former mayor is seriously considering a run for governor in 2010.
The Democrats better come up with somebody other than the current governor, because I don't want to have to pull a lever for the adulterous cad who ran New York City like a thug.

But if it's a choice between Giuliani and Patterson, I will.

thinkin' with your dipstick

So according to the BBC there's a grassroots campaign underway to begin a boycott of Scottish goods as a protest against the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.
VisitScotland spokeswoman Alison Robb said: "We have had e-mails from people in America saying they're going to cancel their holidays but have had no cancellations through our booking engine.
This is no idle threat, as the United States accounts for a significant amount of tourist income for Scotland, but it's a tad idiotic. To begin with, the prevalence of ads like these are a clear sign to me that if anything the Scots should be boycotting us:
BBC also says there's a movement underfoot to get Scotch whiskey renamed Freedom Liquor. Oy.

The pure idiocy of this campaign shines through when you ask what the end goal is: the most successful boycott organizers used collective nonviolent action to goad organizations to change their course. What do they expect Scotland to do? Snatch Megrahi back?

pigeonholing the penis-less (part II)

the first of our responses to an earlier question I posed: in auditions, are female performers forced to make a choice between being pretty or funny? our first (anonymous) correspondent:

I can't really speak to "pretty vs. funny" but I do think there's a serious dichotomy present with any combination of qualities that creates three-dimensional women, i.e. "pretty & intelligent" or "pretty & strong" or "sympathetic & strong." And I think it is well worth mentioning that this exists as a problem not just for actresses - this exists for ALL women whatever their profession - it just may be brought into more frequent and higher visibility in the acting world. Maybe I'm just stereotyping the stereotypes, but QUICK! name a character in film or television that fits any of those categories. Now switch any single word in any pair to its opposite (pretty & ditzy/ugly & intelligent, pretty & weak/ugly & strong, harsh & strong, sympathetic & weak): I'll bet you'll find it a LOT easier to think of examples for those pairings. (And while you're at it, don't stop at Hollywood - literature is full of this, too - Hollywood didn't invent it - they just PERFECTED it.)

I take it back: I will speak to "pretty vs. funny:" If you look at funny as being laughable (as in laugh AT), then there's plenty of that out there (see "pretty & ditzy"). But IMHO, true humor (laugh WITH) requires wit and intelligence, which would be a subset of "pretty & intelligent" - so you see where that leaves us...

Having recently dyed my hair for a role (I'm a natural blonde who went brown), my life INSTANTLY changed. I was walking the same route every day, wearing the same clothes... the only thing that was different was my hair color. The daily commentary from the construction site near my work CEASED - and I mean ENTIRELY. I was invisible (thank goodness - it's enough to make me think about not going back). Women were nicer, whether it was standing on the train platform or shopping in a crowded environment. So again, it's not just Hollywood, either - but then I think the argument can be made that we've all been CONDITIONED by Hollywood to one degree or another...

I have literally been told during my career that I read "too smart" to play a bimbo (although being blonde and curvy, those were largely the roles that I was sent up for and occasionally cast in - that is, back when I was young enough even to be considered for the bimbo). You may OCCASIONALLY find a smart, blonde character in film or TV, but I can practically guarantee that you won't find a smart, blonde, curvy girl - she'll be stick-thin.

Finally in response to the "over 35" thing - Burson's statement is a fallacy from the start. In Hollywood terms, there IS NO SUCH THING as a woman who is considered both "beautiful" and "over 35" unless she became a star in her 20s (or maybe even earlier) and is managing to continue to NOT LOOK HER AGE. Conventional wisdom has it that if you don't make it there in your 20s, you're not going to make it (yes, I'm sure people can provide a few exceptions, but they will be FEW). So Hollywood, worshipping youth and beauty (or the surgical representations of it), has essentially destroyed their older base by drumming them out of the industry, and if they genuinely want it back they're going to have to do a bit of work. They're also going to need to shift their definition of beauty, which is basically to be without facial texture or any meat on your bones. Most women by their mid-30s have figured out that some battles are just not worth fighting, and trying to stay Hollywood-thin will RAVAGE a woman's face, not to mention her health. I'm sure that there are PLENTY of "talented, funny women over 35" out there - maybe even plenty that many of us would consider beautiful - they just may not be "Hollywood" beautiful.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

legislative libido

There's a reason why members of Congress seek out the arms of women who aren't their wives, indeed why they seek love in the strangest of places -- congressional page chat rooms, airport bathroom stalls, etc. It's the same reason they seek out face time on shouty political television, why the campaign has become a full-time parallel track to their time in office:

The actual work of governing is mind-numbingly boring. As it should be.

The popular conception of how government works -- formed through David Baldacci novels, insidery accounts by Bob Woodward, and whip-smart dialogue by Aaron Sorkin -- is a big bright shining lie. The clear courses of action; vision, talent, and intelligence in ample supply; quick resolutions: these are tragic distortions of how things actually work. They portray of government as faithfully as "The Day After Tomorrow" follows global warming science.

Since the average audience wont understand how things work -- we wont be entertained -- if the timeline is true, a writer will toss an iceberg onto Manhattan, and Jimmy Stewart will talk himself into a coma on the floor of the Senate. Because that's how things really get done. The villains are punished, the righteous vindicated, and all magically within 60 or 120 minutes, or 600 pages, depending on the medium and story arc.

Hard to pinpoint when, exactly, we lost leave of our senses about government. Perhaps the answer is that we never had much sense of these things to begin with. There's a reason why the Framers kept the Senate (an even more powerful arm of the Legislative Branch when it was first conceived) away from direct elections -- they knew the unwashed hordes were too passionate, and perhaps too stupid, to handle it.

For much of our short history, those without property or penis -- and/or with darker skin -- have had to prove themselves worthy of the vote and legislative power. As the old white men skewering Judge Sonia Sotomayor showed us earlier this month, that exam is still ongoing.

Similarly, the rest of us must prove that we deserve to participate in our representative democracy; that means not being stupid, when we can help it. So let's start with two things that are not sexy -- not now, not ever: health care reform and conservation of the environment.

The nettlesome issue of reforming health care is such that any policy that reduces it to a single sentence means that policy is based on a lie. Real health care reform has all the sex appeal of an actuarial table. Reforming it means refiling the paperwork of 300 million Americans: sheer drudgery -- mind-numbing, painful, and LONG.

The very fact that the Americans who need this work done the most can't seem to get their minds around it, and whine to pollsters about not being inspired by the President's leadership on this issue, explains why we are all saddled with mountains of consumer and mortgage debt.

After all, there's nothing sexy about waiting for something you want when you can have it NOW by taking on debt, be it a house, a car, or a night on the town. When you've been given absolutely no reason to act the adult and be responsible for your own choices, like most children, you'll whine.

This holds true for environmental policy, but this time, there's more blame to go around. We're not only contending with flag-waving idiots who say it's their God-given right to drive their SUVs (although they are idiots), but the well-meaning but fatally mistaken tree huggers as well. Fifty Little Things You Can Do To Save The Earth -- remember that? What utter nonsense. If that's not social policy at its infantilizing worst I don't know what is.

The idea of incrementalism, especially for a country as profligate when it comes to its resources as ours, is laudable. But incremental change means incremental outcomes. A better title would have been 50 little things you can start to do. But by inflating the outcome (refrigerating your drinking water you won't save the Earth) you minimized the effort.
But that wasn't the point, anyway? It wasn't to save the earth -- it was to sell books. And to sell, we needed to think big! Cue Hollywood...

The reductive, childlike analogies that characterize our political discourse didn't start with us, and will no doubt continue as a trend. The beginning and end of each life tends to hold these bookmarks -- as a child the world is explained to you in broad strokes and bright colors, and towards the end many choose to see it that way as well. It's the squishy, complex middle that's always shrinking.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

ABD (Anybody But David)

This blog officially endorses Andrew Cuomo for Governor in 2010. What's that you say? He hasn't declared his candidacy? I don't care -- I endorse him anyway. I endorse my friend's cat for New York Governor. Anyone but this fool:
Gov. David A. Paterson lashed out on Friday at critics who say he should not run for election, and he suggested that he was being undermined by an orchestrated, racially biased effort by the media to force him to step aside.

“We’re not in the postracial period,” he told Errol Louis, a columnist for The Daily News and the host of the radio program, on WWRL-AM. “My feeling is it’s being orchestrated, it’s a game, and people who pay attention know that,” he added.
We don't yet live in a post-racial society, but I'm ready to declare a cultural trope: well-connected and powerful yet woefully inept black men who cry racism when they can't admit their own incompetence. Not to be racist or anything, but you know who the Governor sounds like? Marion Barry. (A note to Patterson et al: you're embarrassing the rest of us and you're debasing yourselves. Be quiet.)

Racism? This from the guy who admitted to extra-marital affairs and drug use after becoming Governor (through his predecessor's incompetence)?

Racism? After his absurdly belated and illegal attempt to end the New York State Assembly's embarrassing pissing contest which made any grade school student council appear functional and mature by comparison, and which showed him to be a joke as the putative leader of his own party? (It really is too bad Malcolm Smith and John Sampson are both black; otherwise Governor Patterson could have claimed they didn't listen to him because of racism, too.)

Racism? Against a Governor whose most significant contribution to the budget crisis in this state has been a 10% pay cut? (And that was only for himself: double dipping in the State Assembly continues unabated.)

Racism? After this was the best this joker could come up with to replace Hillary Clinton for New York State's U.S. Senate seat?

It's not racist to say you're bad at your job if you really are. And Governor Patterson is almost as bad as they come: the outcome of self-dealing upstate politics, an unimaginative product of a broken political system who reeks of fail so badly his shoes make little squishing noises whenever he takes a step.
Somebody give this joker the Alkhateeb treatment.

On his watch the Democrats, handed majority control of the Governor's mansion and State Assembly for the first time in decades, managed to hand Republicans a gold-plated argument that they should be returned to power -- this in a year when Republicans nationwide (and even TEXAS, for God's sake!) are being told they will not get the keys to rule back for many years to come.

By playing the race card so egregiously, the Governor does more damage to the fight against real bigotry than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas every time the latter opens his hateful mouth to spew more bile about Affirmative Action and a black sense of entitlement. At least Thomas stands outside the tent pissing in; Patterson just pisses in the tent.

Governor Patterson is not a victim of a concerted racist campaign on the part of white media outlets -- he's the victim of his own mediocrity. And he needs to go away.

america and iran do have something in common

It has emerged that protesters in Iran imprisoned for the impunity of demanding their vote be counted have been subjected to systematic sexual violence while in custody. From the BBC:
A defeated opposition candidate in Iran's presidential election has called for an investigation into allegations some protesters were raped in prison.

In a letter to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi said senior officials had informed him of the "shameful behaviour" taking place.

Mr Karroubi wrote that both male and female detainees had been raped, with some suffering serious injuries.
This is hardly surprising, but tragic nevertheless. And finally, the United States and Iran can agree on something -- that the brutalization of its prison inmates makes for good corrective policy.

A reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish talks about how explosive this is:

By publicly stating that he knows of many, many young girls and guys who have been brutally raped while in the infamous Kahrizak jail, Karroubi breaks a major taboo and brings shame on the whole system.
Sadly, this is something we don't have in common: the epidemic of sexual violence that permeates America's ever-growing prison population will continue until we stop thinking that it's funny, nothing will be done. Because, apparently, someone thrown in prison for asserting their civil rights is a human being, while someone thrown in there for falling afoul of draconian Rockefeller drug laws is less so. So you're right, Norm. We have a lot of growing up to do.

Lest you think this is the rambling of a bleeding heart lefty, keep in mind that this is also about self-preservation. In a country where 1 in 100 citizens are in prison, and 1 in 31 is touched in one way or another by the corrections system, violence within prison walls will soon spill out. Lord help us all when that happens.

This is probably as good a time as any to point you to

Friday, August 21, 2009

war is peace, ignorance is strength, sickness is health

Some light reading heading into the weekend. Leszek Kolakowski discussing The Ego and His Own (1844) by Max Stirner (born Johann Kaspar Schmidt) [1806-1856]:
As recent studies by Helms have shown, Stirner's doctrine inspired not only anarchists but various German groups who were the immediate precursors of fascism. At first sight, Nazi totalitarianism may seem the opposite of Stirner's radical individualism. But fascism was above all an attempt to dissolve the social ties created by history and replace them by artifical bonds among individuals who were expected to render implicit obedience to the state on grounds of absolute egoism. Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism, the latter being the means by which the individual secured his own niche in the system. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to say against conformism, it only objects to the Ego being subordinated to any higher principle: the egoist is free to adjust to the world if it appears that he will better himself by doing so. His 'rebellion' may take the form of utter servility if it will further his interest; what he must not do is to be bound by 'general' values or myths of humanity.[Emphases Added]
The following acts are therefore perfectly logical...

  1. Decrying government as the source of evil and incompetence, while at the same time amassing great wealth by providing services to the government (Blackwater/Xe, CCA, Edison Learning);

  2. Waging an unwinnable (ie, endless) war by arguing that the consequence of not doing so would be endless war; and

  3. Decrying existing international conventions as outdated (Geneva Conventions = "quaint").
...but the logic only works if one simultaneously reads them within a fascist/Stirner context. So: health care reform town halls = little smoldering Reichstags?

squeezing national defense into profit margins is probably not a good idea

The carousel keeps spinning. From James Risen and Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times:

From a secret division at its North Carolina headquarters, the company formerly known as Blackwater has assumed a role in Washington’s most important counterterrorism program: the use of remotely piloted drones to kill Al Qaeda’s leaders, according to government officials and current and former employees.

The division’s operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.

We already outsource education, imprisonment, and assassination. How long before we privatize law enforcement? More than we already have, I mean.

the need for vigilance


In case you missed it a couple weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan quoting Heny Fairlie writing back in 1980:
It is time that we pointed out to the neo-conservatives that democracy has never been subverted from the left but always from the right.

No democracy has fallen to communism, without an army; many democracies have fallen to fascism, from within. The Reaganites on the floor were exactly those who in Germany gave the Nazis their main strength and who in France collaborated with them and sustained Vichy. If the neo-conservatives cannot sniff danger, surely the rest of us can be alert.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Murder, Inc.

Not only does North Carolina-based Blackwater/Xe try to intimidate and kill government witnesses against it, like a hillbilly Cosa Nostra, it turns out they steal taxpayer money not delivering on government contracts, just like Tony Soprano.

Why do crypto-Christo-fascists hate the government so much? It feeds them so well! According to Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times:
The Central Intelligence Agency in 2004 hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater USA as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.

Executives from Blackwater, which has generated controversy because of its aggressive tactics in Iraq, helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance. The C.I.A. spent several million dollars on the program, which did not successfully capture or kill any terrorist suspects.
Oh, you wanted us to kill terrorists? That we don't do so much. Now, if you want us to gun down some unarmed Iraqi civilians, that we can do!

This was the program CIA Director Leon Panetta killed in June, and one of the programs that Vice President Dick Cheney determined could go forward without Congressional approval.

Republicans have criticized Mr. Panetta’s decision to cancel the program, saying he created a tempest in a teapot.

“I think there was a little more drama and intrigue than was warranted,” said Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
Extra-judicial killings, outsourced to a private company whose employees don't even have a service oath to violate? Yeah, this isn't really that big a deal.

Unlike Xe founder (and ex-Navy SEAL) Erik D. Prince, at least this guy bothered to show up in uniform before he unzipped and pissed on the Constitution:

the arts wont save your career, either (dresden, part two)

And now the uber-capitalist American defence of arts -- kind of a bizarro-world reflection of the Dresden Paradox. Users of Glory's List, a New York City-based theater listserv, were treated yesterday to a commentary by John Louis Anderson that warned against the temptation to cut the apparent fat of arts programs in higher education:

In response to the economic crisis, Washington State University has proposed eliminating three academic programs, among them theater. When a state doesn't have the funds to extend health care to the neediest, the arts can seem to some like a pointless luxury.

At a time when "liberal arts major" is becoming a sardonic punch line, declaring yourself to once have been a theater major gets the biggest snort of all. Someone's always sure to point out that there aren't many theater majors working in professional theater. True, but I suspect there are more theater majors working in theater than there are physical education majors working in professional sports.

So far, so good. I'm all for levelling the playing field and assessing academic theater programs as coldly as any other. But the train soon veers off the rails:

Let me give you a real-life situation. My best friend in college -- who was also the best man at my wedding -- and I were both theater majors, several millennia ago, in pop-culture terms.

I went on to grad school and was lucky enough to work as a photographer with the Guthrie Theater for a short time. From there I found my way into advertising photography. Ray, on the other hand, became a harbor master in the San Juan Islands, then opened a boarding stable.

So, were our theater degrees of any use to either one of us? Absolutely.

By the time we graduated, we'd already experienced several worlds' worth of people. We'd seen the world through a kaleidoscope, from Shakespeare to Schiller, from Pirandello to Peter Ustinov. Commedia dell'arte, with its bombastic businessmen, blustering warriors, idiotic doctors, clueless young men and clever cuties, was our Cliff Notes to Life, detailing and explaining the people we'd meet and have to deal with for the rest of our lives.

But neither of us realized how profoundly we relied on what we learned in theater classes until recently.

We're now at the age where our parents are passing on. No matter how much you anticipate that loss, it still comes as a complete surprise.

Both of my parents and my father-in-law passed on years ago. Now my mother-in-law is in poor health. If you have read or seen Sophocles, you already know something about grief. Chekhov teaches you about people whose lives are consumed by regret.

I'm always a little leery when a defense of arts takes a utilitarian approach (and just as leery when one defends art as a form of flag-waving patriotism).

Art doesn't give us better business acuity or more likely to succeed at animal husbandry -- and it doesn't necessarily make us better people. It articulates the human condition for those who are willing to listen. That's all. (And if you're Michael Kimmelman, that futility alone is cause for despair.)

the idiocy of crowds

I'm in the middle of Barry Seldes' excellent, provacative book Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of An American Musician. Seldes chronicles how, in the late 1940s, America's collective political testicles shrank in the face of fear and red-baiting. An interesting footnote to history is the failed presidential campaign of George Wallace as a progressive campaigning to the left of Truman in 1948.

What history remembers is the Dewey Defeats Truman headline; what history forgets is how Truman's victory was a victory for political cowardice, narrow-minded provincialism, and a fear of reaching across demographic lines -- (all of which Wallace's progressive coalition attempted to do):

On April 26, 1948, according to an FBI memorandum, [Bernstein] had signed on to a protest against the repressive Mundt-Nixon Communist Control bill. He arrived back in New York and on May 29, signed a statement by musicians claiming that only one of the three national [presidential] candidates was "in the Roosevelt tradition": "[Wallace is for] Peace, Full Employment, Repeal of the Taft-Hartley Law, [for] Equal Opportunities and Civil Rights, 15 Million New homes, Global Reconstruction through the United Nations, National Health Program and a National Cultural Program" [and against] "War, Universal Military Training, [the] Truman Doctrine, Inflation and Depression, all forms of Discrimination and Thought-Control."

By the end of that summer, the Wallace support was in free fall as voters, worried about Dewey's projected victory, started to turn to Truman as the lesser evil. [...]

A more crucial reason for the failure of the Wallace constituency to grow into a massive voting bloc was the issue of communism. Early on, the Americans for Democratic Action [a coalition of more mainstream New Deal Democrats including Eleanor Roosevelt and Harold Ickes] had pounded away at [Wallace's] Progressives for their acceptance of communists within their ranks. This theme caught on among Irish Catholic voters, who followed the church hierarchy and especially Cardinal Spellman in support of Franco and HUAC. Polish Catholics, upset with the Soviets, had also moved to the right. Another factor that helped Catholic and non-Catholic blue-collar workers forgo the Progressives and remain in the Democratic fold was their new, or anticipated, economic condition. Fundamental to the outlook of postwar Truman liberalism was a turning away from the driving forces of progressive New Dealism. The latter had been energized by the idea that the government could ensure a more egalitarian distribution of incomes, upgrade social services and offer universal medical care, and regulate the economy to ensure high employment. But Truman liberals deemphasized many of the progressives' goals and emphasized instead a model best exemplified by steel- and autoworkers unions' obtaining higher wages based on increased productivity in return for leaving the running of industry to managers. In this way, higher-waged workers joined others in the new consumerism that, fed by a combination of pent-up demand and reaction to the Depression and war, had become the regnant outlook of many Americans who no longer were interested in class politics.

We are now paying the price of their concession to corporatist democracy sixty years ago: the continuing battle against the insecurity of boom and bust, no national health care infrastructure (and a crumbling of the infrastructure built under the New Deal), an evaporation of the manufacturing base that provided the foundation of America's half-century of (false) economic stability, and the replacement of communism with terrorism as an amorphous bogeyman that stands for nothing except as an existential Threat to Our Way Of Life.

The economic arguments of today are echo those of 1948, with no more understanding in the interim; the modern-day Father Coughlins of Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck are pale imitations as well; the only missing element is the furtive search for a mysterious fifth column that seeks to tear it all asunder -- but we're close.

When Congress convenes hearings looking for disloyal Americans (rather than throwing only dangerous foreigners into Camp X-Ray), history will have returned as farce.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

would the loud crazies please sit down while the smart ones stand up (and speak up)?

And we really, really don't care what party you belong to in either case.

With the collective madness that are health care reform town halls, this is the perfect moment for common sense to prevail across party lines when it can. (We already told you about this...)

what's really on the market

Over at Unscripted, Sharina Martin celebrates landing a film contract:
this is the first film endeavor I am actually getting paid for. I feel as though I'm popping some sort of acting cherry. My work is valuable enough to be treated as a commodity by people. I'm moving on up!
First of all, congrats! But the point is that (like I said earlier today) as a performer, your "work" is not the commodity -- you are. I don't think that's a good or bad thing in and of itself -- it's what you do with that fact that matters.

More commodified actresses in the days to come...

pigeonholing the penis-less (part I)

A very unscientific poll of New York City actresses follows.

Here's how it got started. The Times had a profile of Anne Heche where the co-creator of the new series Hung, Colette Burson, said "It is incredibly difficult to find beautiful, talented, funny women over 35."

Then, Jezebel covered her digging-ever-deeper retraction here, where Anna North wrote:

Maybe it wouldn't be "hard to find pretty and funny" if actresses weren't pigeonholed as one or the other, or if we thought of humor as sexy in women the way we do in men. Of course, it's not Burson's fault that Hollywood deals in simplistic gender stereotypes. But as someone who says "I feel so passionately about the issue" of creating compelling female characters over 35, she could certainly challenge these stereotypes a bit more.
So we asked come actresses we know about it. Have they experienced this kind of either/or dichotomy -- expected to be pretty OR funny, but never both? How pigeonholed are you in auditions these days by your looks/age/ethnicity/possession of a brain?

These were loaded questions, since it's a given that theater, once mixed with business, is a narrow-minded enterprise. Commercial success is the surest way to kill originality, since the audience you're attracting -- at least, when you know you're going to lose money -- is quite different than the one you're trying to entice to spend perhaps hundreds of dollars on a ticket. [Thanks, Showcase Code!]

How does one tempt a better-heeled audience? With a tacit promise that the stories will be linear, the tension resolved, and the faces pretty. (And how exactly does one determine what constitutes pretty? Glad you asked -- those faces are largely white. But race politics are already overplayed around here, so I'm staying the hell away from that for now.)

Somewhat paradoxically, pretty is also neutered; threatening beauty is not comforting to an audience, and to it's placed in a separate category -- les femmes fatales, if you will. Comedy, on the other hand, is almost always at its best when it's subversive. Family friendly comedy is usually marked by its willingness to meet expectations and not surprise. Granted, there's nothing particularly witty about dropping the f-bomb over and over again, but there's definitely nothing funny about Reba.

This is chronicled much better elsewhere, but to be a funny woman is doubly subversive. But remember, the more money you ask of a theater audience, the less flexible they are: there's a direct correlation between money spent and ego they expect to be stroked. You can't abuse their preconceptions, you need to one extent or another, to reinforce them. You can imagine what happens to actresses (already subdivided by color, waist size, height, etc.) when they are doomed with having personality as well.

Having jumped late onto the Mad Men bandwagon, there are plenty of chauvinistic exchanges that are simply cringe-worthy to the contemporary ear as I catch up on past episodes: it's a sexism that's shocking (to us) in its condescendingly casual tone as much as its actual content. It's hard to believe that the objectification of woman was a cultural norm so recently... least, it's hard to believe for the five minutes it takes to find this. Or this. Or this.

So how unrecognizable are the new prejudices? I guess as sensitive as your ears are. Or until a Boston police officer calls Henry Louis Gates a jungle monkey in an email.

(But before we turn this into an all-people-with-power-are-evil rant, there's something worth thinking about here when you're a performer on the other side of the audition table as well: when you're acting, your job isn't to change the world, it's to convey a client's story to a consumer. The lines are clearer when you're auditioning for a commercial, less so when you're doing a straight play. The fundamentals are the same, but this time around the product is you.)

So that's the question. The first of their answers next week.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

art knows no flag

the always excellent Adam Forrest Huttler quotes the also-always-excellent Rachael Maddow speaking as part of "Pillow Talk," hosted by Jacob's Pillow Dance on the patriotic nature of artistic expression:

Sometimes we choose to serve our country in uniform, in war. Sometimes in elected office. And those are the ways of serving our country that I think we are trained to easily call heroic. It’s also a service to your country, I think, to teach poetry in the prisons, to be an incredibly dedicated student of dance, to fight for funding music and arts education in the schools. A country without an expectation of minimal artistic literacy, without a basic structure by which the artists among us can be awakened and given the choice of following their talents and a way to get to be great at what they do, is a country that is not actually as a great as it could be. And a country without the capacity to nurture artistic greatness is not being a great country. It is a service to our country, and sometimes it is heroic service to our country, to fight for the United States of America to have the capacity to nurture artistic greatness...
While I agree with the sentiment that creative endeavors are a form of public service, I disagree with the argument that that are a patriotic act. Creativity doesn't end at a border on a map: great art necessarily transcends national boundaries, because the creative impulse is a universal impulse.

Now, if you want to argue that the freedoms we're granted in this country create an exceptional arena for creative expression, I'll grant you that argument has some merit. However, that's the beginning of the argument, not the end. Freedom should be celebrated and exported: it is a quality that should be shared worldwide, not hoarded as a national resource at the expense of others. (Also, let's remember that some of the most spectacular artistic works that have been created under incredibly repressive regimes: creativity not only blooms in spite of censorship, it can sometimes be inspired by it.)

I understand the larger goal of Maddow's comments: to explain that love of country is not the exclusive province of the narrow-minded, and that filling the coffers of the NEA funding can be a patriotic act. But as we try to at least share the flag with the know-nothings, let's make sure that we don't share their chauvinism.

Monday, August 17, 2009

redefining hate crime

My mother has always condemned the very concept of hate crime legislation; not for a lack of sympathy with various minority groups, but because of her deeply held belief that all crime is an expression of hate. While this is a fair enough assertion, perhaps this article
will help reconcile her to the existence of these laws on the books.

Eric Lichtblau's August 7 New York Times piece notes that
With economic troubles pushing more people onto the streets in the last few years, law enforcement officials and researchers are seeing a surge in unprovoked attacks against the homeless, and a number of states are considering legislation to treat such assaults as hate crimes.

A report due out this weekend from the National Coalition for the Homeless documents a rise in violence over the last decade, with at least 880 unprovoked attacks against the homeless at the hands of nonhomeless people, including 244 fatalities.

“More and more, we’re hearing about homeless people being attacked for no other reason than that they’re homeless, and we’ve got to do something about it,” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, said in an interview.

“I hear the same rhetoric all the time,” Ms. Johnson said. “They ask, ‘Why is their life more important than anyone else’s?’”

In Portland, Ore., twin brothers were charged with five unprovoked attacks against homeless people in a park. One of the victims was a man beaten with his own bike, another a woman pushed down a steep staircase.

In Cleveland, a man leaving a homeless shelter to visit his mother was “savagely beaten by a group of thugs,” the police said.

In Los Angeles, a homeless man who was a neighborhood fixture was doused in gasoline and set on fire.

In Boston, a homeless Army veteran was beaten to death as witnesses near Faneuil Hall reportedly looked on.

And in Jacksonville, N.C., a group of young men fatally stabbed a homeless man behind a shopping strip, cutting open his abdomen with a beer bottle.
The intent behind hate crime legislation is that society's outliers are granted distinguished protection because they are especially vulnerable -- and the very nature of their identity creates a motive for criminal action where otherwise none would exist.

If these reforms were to take place, extending protection to those who are often the most despised among us would give them redress for assaults visited on them for the fault of being the least fortunate. And in the meantime, perhaps civil society could work on preventing the penury that make them such obvious targets in the first place.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

the arts will not save your soul on their own

An interesting analysis of art's civilizing influence (or lack thereof) in Friday's New York Times. Michael Kimmelman's recounting of the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini in a Dresden courtroom by a white nationalist and assault (by police) of her husband as he tried to save her makes for every brown person's worst nightmare:
Marwa al-Sherbini, a pregnant Egyptian pharmacist [...] was stabbed 18 times in a Dresden courtroom, in front of her 3-year-old son, judges and other witnesses, reportedly by the man appealing a fine for having insulted Ms. Sherbini in a park. Identified by German authorities only as a 28-year-old Russian-born German named Alex W., he had called Ms. Sherbini an Islamist, a terrorist and a slut when she asked him to make room for her son on the playground swings. Ms. Sherbini wore a head scarf.

The killer also stabbed Elwi Okaz, Ms. Sherbini’s husband and a genetic research scientist, who was critically wounded as he tried to defend her. The police, arriving late on the scene, mistook him for the attacker and shot him in the leg.
That's the kind of mistaken identity that makes Henry Louis Gates' ordeal this summer seem like drinking a beer in the Rose Garden. (Of course, the good Professor would argue that his detention was merely the first step on the same path of horror that occurred in Dresden -- especially the horrific shooting of Mr. Okaz, assumed to be the perpetrator in a courtroom melee by arriving policemen since he was brown. HLG would be wrong on that count.)

What turns Kimmelman's human interest piece into more tragic cri de coeur is the conclusion he reaches from this horrific act occurring in one of European cultural capital:
High-tech industries and research institutes like the one where Ms. Sherbini’s husband works, which recruit foreign experts, have lifted Dresden economically above much of the rest of the former East [Germany], and last year nearly 10 million tourists fattened the city’s coffers. With half a million residents, some 20,000 of them foreigners, the capital looks prosperous and charming, like its old self.

All of which gets back to the problem of reconciliation: What are the humanizing effects of culture?

Evidently, there are none.

To walk through Dresden’s museums, and past the young buskers fiddling Mozart on street corners, is to wonder whether this age-old question may have things backward. It presumes that we’re passive receivers acted on by the arts, which vouchsafe our salvation, moral and otherwise, so long as we remain in their presence. Arts promoters nowadays like to trumpet how culture helps business and tourism; how teaching painting and music in schools boosts test scores. They try to assign practical ends, dollar values and other hard numbers, never mind how dubious, to quantify what’s ultimately unquantifiable.

The lesson of Dresden, which this great city unfortunately seems doomed to repeat, is that culture is, to the contrary, impractical and fragile, helpless even. Residents of Dresden who believed, when the war was all but over, that their home had somehow been spared annihilation by its beauty were all the more traumatized when, in a matter of hours, bombs killed tens of thousands and obliterated centuries of humane and glorious architecture.

The truth is, we can stare as long as we want at that Raphael Madonna; or at Antonello da Messina’s “St. Sebastian,” now beside a Congo fetish sculpture in another room in the Gemäldegalerie; or at the shiny coffee sets, clocks and cups made of coral and mother-of-pearl and coconuts and diamonds culled from the four corners of the earth in the city’s New Green Vault, which contains the spoils of the most cultivated Saxon kings. But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot.

What we can also do, though, is accept that while the arts won’t save us, we should save them anyway. Because the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.
It's hard not to find some sympathy with this kind of nihilistic despair (if arts can't redeem humanity in Dresden, it won't anywhere), but in the United States, where advocates argue that government funding for the arts saves us from the throes of hate, or acts simultaneously as a nationalistic and humanistic act, such self-defeating rhetoric is anathema. After all, arts advocates (in addition to keeping their projects alive), are trying to stave off catastrophe by keeping the forces of ignorance and genocide from widespread influence. (Hmm. And hmm.)

It's especially terrifying that this deep pessimism comes out of Germany. The Nazis have never held power in this country (both the health care reform nuts and anti-Bush II zealots can shut it. They haven't), and the civilizing influence of our multicultural society has been seen as its winning strategy in that endless vigil.

If it turns out that arts are not at all useful in the effort to find common ground, the only other option is that they are a tool for those who would exploit our differences (after all, don't forget the Chancellor of the Wagner Fan Club). Art does not exist in a vacuum: it works as a tool in the interest of someone's agenda, be it the National Socialists, the Medicis, or Coca Cola.

So when this kind of despair is takes root among art's partisans (this is a column in the Arts Section of the New York Times, not Jesse Helms' zombieblog, for crying out loud), a helpful question for artists to be asking themselves is what agenda, what interests, are they pursuing? Artists need to examine whether they're a tool for those who would bring us together, or those who would drive us apart -- because you can't sit that choice out.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

devil in the details (producing part one)

Theater is a game of illusions; convincing an audience that there is more (or less) than meets the eye is part of the game. Which is why my (amply articulated by now) abiding interest in politics makes sense: the magician's trick of making a routine practiced exhaustively appear spontaneous is a skill every politician envies. We're supposed to enjoy the spectacle, but not the circuitry behind it.

It makes the fact that making 2009 the year of Government is Trying to Kill us with Healthcare Reform Theater so fascinating, since it's the 40th anniversary of one of big government's more spectacular achievements. Yet, if you listen to certain elements of the right-wing extreme, government intervention has spelled only disaster throughout our history.

Craig Nelson's "Rocket Men," a riveting account of the Apollo moon landing, provides convincing proof that theater is like rocket science.

Not for the intelligence required, or the prestige, or the gobs of money that were and still are thrown at NASA (some would say at the expense of the NEA: President Johnson said "We can do it all," and how wrong he was).

Instead, I find the parallels between theater and rockets in Nelson's description of how rocket propulsion works:
The essence of rocketry is combining fuel, flame, and oxidizer in a combustion chamber to create a continuously exploding bomb, the force of which is directed through a throat, and then a nozzle. If the liquid fuel pumped into the chamber isn't immediately ignited, however, it builds up, causing varying degrees of explosion -- known as combustion oscillations -- some of which can be more powerful than the chamber is designed to hold. The result is that the motor regularly blows itself up [...]

Repeated trial and error of an engine model that contains thousands of parts, with every success preceded buy hundreds, thousands, of failures; as Nelson puts it, "more of an art than science."
You rarely can explain the moment where things went wrong: once a rocket explodes, the potential culprits number in the hundreds, scattered across an airfield. Here's where theater is a bit like rocket science but turned on its head: instead of finding the elusive detail that makes things go wrong, in theater you tend to hunt for that magic ingredient that made things go right.
Cast member Roy Clary ("Henry") and Associate Producer Jessica Hochman at The Third Seat's First read through on-site, Ceol Irish Pub.

Now, we've been lucky so far here at COItc in that our airfield isn't littered with too many shards of blown-up engines. I think we're rather pleased with our output -- even though we do try to learn from mistakes when we make them.

But if theater is like rocket science, producing theater is rather like the bureaucratic effort that went on behind the scenes to create and fund NASA; if successful, it's an effort that goes largely unnoticed. It's only when the rocket blows up that questions are asked about how that was allowed to happen.
Roy Clary and Laurel Lockhart ("Estelle") in the finished product.

There are two moments when the sister movements of Libertarianism and small-government Conservatism seem like good ideas: (1) when I get my pay stub with state, federal, and city taxes excised, and (2) when I do the paperwork for an Equity showcase.

Suddenly I wonder why it is that we've placed all these red-tape-ringed barriers to progress when the source of our greatness clearly lies in the derring-do of individuals who flaunt the status quo and bravely set out into uncharted waters. Ben Franklin didn't care about paperwork and approvals.

These are also the moments, of course, when I conveniently forget that Columbus had Isabella, the Founders had slaves, Babe Ruth never had to compete with black baseball players, and the Greatest Generation had the New Deal, the GI Bill, and Social Security. So shut up, Grover Norquist.

At the off-off-off-on-the-other-side-of-the-East-River-Broadway level where COItc dwells, producing duties tend to consist of caring for any elements of production not covered by someone else. You're not fighting for the glorious spoils, you're sweeping up table scraps: that set has to go somewhere after you close, and it's the producer's job to figure out where (answer: the producer's [my] living room). In the three years of sweeping in between designers' fiefdoms, I've developed theories as to why the rocket hasn't blown up too spectacularly.

A producer must be invisible
In a meeting of more than two people, a producer should be silent.

In a meeting of two people, a producer should *not* be silent. (Like the MTA says, if you see something...)

A producer must get the hell out of the way
It's a strange alchemy, and whatever personality type one is when they approach producing, it's guaranteed to be ill-suited to the job at hand. Type A know-it-alls will micromanage themselves into a disaster. Church mice will lose control of the ship. More than the actor, more than the director, the producer must be all things to all people. You must become the smoke-blower-in-chief. Most importantly, none of the good ideas can come from you -- they have to come from the people you hired.

Like the paper-pushing bureaucrat who lines up the government funding, when your job goes well, as a producer you are an unseen ally. The rest of the time every single actor, designer, and crewmember will curse you as the ogre responsible for their lack of resources, inability to create freely, and pretty much everything that needs to be blamed on someone.

The producer's hand is the invisible hand of government, paving roads, shoring up infrastructure, and getting none of the credit, but all of the blame.

[More bitchy wisdom to come]

Friday, August 14, 2009

burn the camps down

(or, it's time for a serious attempt at post-racialism)

(In March 2009, we presented a reading of Wrestling the Alligator in anticipation of its June production. This article was included in the program.)

In an interview with Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine promoting her new book, The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed responded to Solomon’s assertion that “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were pioneers of our increasingly mixed-race society”:
I don’t think we are increasingly mixed-race. We’ve always been a mixed-race society.
In his seminal work Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Paul Gilroy outlines how “the modern times that W.E.B. Du Bois once identified as the century of the color line have now passed.” He encourages us to be brave as we face the abyss, since “the demise of ‘race’ is not something to be feared”:

People who have been subordinated by race-thinking and its distinctive social structures (not all of which come tidily color-coded) have for centuries employed the concepts and categories of their rulers, owners, and persecutors to resist the destiny that “race” has allocated to them and to dissent from the lowly value it placed upon their lives. Under the most difficult of conditions and from imperfect materials that they surely would not have selected if they have been able to choose, these oppressed groups have built complex traditions of politics, ethics, identity, and culture. The currency of “race” has marginalized these traditions from official histories of modernity and relegated them to the backwaters of the primitive and the prepolitical. They have involved elaborate, improvised constructions that have the primary function of absorbing and deflecting abuse. But they have gone far beyond merely affording protection and reversed the polarities of insult, brutality, and contempt, which are unexpectedly turned into important sources of solidarity, joy, and collective strength. When ideas of racial peculiarity are inverted in this defensive manner to that they provide sources of pride rather than shame and humiliation, they become difficult to relinquish.
Gilroy’s subsequent argument, that these populations must be “persuaded very carefully” to relinquish these identities bears little weight: rather, the former subjects of institutionalized racism must be shocked and awed into a new post-racial consciousness.

This upheaval can be initiated very simply: with a moderate dosage of truth. Reveal to “black” Americans that their fought-for identity is, in truth, a lie: they have, in fact, shared a bloodline with “the other” this whole time. The family crest forged from scraps and shards is revealed—through its internally fuzzy logic—to be a serpent.

After all, if the duality of us and them holds any weight, if we and they are so immutable (if, indeed, we are better than they are), the obliteration of this concept of two inviolable camps cannot be achieved through gradually relinquishing its precepts: they must be obliterated. “Our” fate must be inextricably and instantaneously bound with “theirs” by no other means than eliminating the illusion of meaningful difference between identities.

The color line between the descendants of African slaves and European colonists is not the cultural rift that defines this century—the line itself is blurry almost beyond recognition; the flimsiness of the evidence upon which the descendants of slaves and descendants of their owners is, however, all too apparent.

In addition to the President of the United States, the recently appointed president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Benjamin Jealous, has a white parent and black parent. Such pairings are not remarkable; they have only been remarkable in how stridently slave states (and some “free” states) worked to legislate against them (as comedian Dave Attell once noted, no one writes laws against things people don’t want to do).
Instead, what is remarkable is that two institutions significant for their symbolic power are led by individuals of nebulous racial ancestry. The color line to which Du Bois (a founding member of the NAACP) referred now runs, it would seem, right through the man who runs the organization he founded to address it. The presidency, constructed by the framers of the Constitution to present America’s face to the world (a task in modern times assigned to the Secretary of State, a position occupied twice by the descendants of slaves and three times to women) is now occupied by a man who would have been counted as three-fifths of a person by the constitution as originally written.

At what point do the symbols erected by society to reflect as well as guide that society’s development need to be updated and, if necessary, discarded when they have outlived their usefulness? Why, then, do we cling to a racial arithmetic that fails to add up?

It would be one thing if the stakes were lower; unfortunately, at issue is more complex than a leaky faucet or an inefficient tax code—it is no less than the very prism with which we view ourselves, and consequently the world around us. We allocate resources (funds for college education, employment opportunities, artistic legitimacy) based on models of guilt and racial camps that no longer apply. We resemble Civil War re-enactors, playing out roles in a society that no longer exists, gleefully ignorant of advances or changes made in the meantime, for the comfort of playing out a script, the end of which we already know.

That’s acceptable for a car salesman from Fairfax who wants to while away the weekend outdoors wearing scratchy wool; it’s dangerous when we live entire lives under false assumptions. There are some (David Duke, 50 Cent, Al Sharpton) who live comfortable lives based on these assumptions. They cannot be blamed for exploiting a marketplace they had no part in creating, but we have a larger responsibility—as consumers—to alter that marketplace. Just as car drivers in the seventies embraced the catalytic converter, as hairspray and refrigerator consumers in the eighties abandoned CFCs, we need to stop consuming outdated racial categorization. Like the toxins that have come before, they are killing us.

Stephen Vittoria’s 2005 documentary One Bright Shining Moment chronicles the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern. Dick Gregory recalls the visceral hatred McGovern engendered on the part of the political establishment, and explained it succinctly: when one has been in darkness for so long, it’s only natural for the slightest bit of light to hurt.

This is the dilemma Americans face today: a flash of pain as we acknowledge the singularity of race in this country, or over dependence on an outdated racial model that promises to hurt less simply because we’ve lived with the pain so long it’s been reduced to a dull throb.

We’re surrounded by examples on either side of yesterday’s racial divide who embrace old categories, chauvinisms, and hatreds because they’ve chosen the devil they know over the devil they don’t.

It’s on the rest of us to choose differently.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

audition horror stories (part one)

Theater production is a painful pursuit: there's no money in it, little recognition, and really just one seemingly insurmountable humiliating obstacle after another. It's especially no fun if you can't laugh at it. So we asked some of our friends to provide some audition tales. Bad auditions. Wallpaper-peeling bad. Here's the first. (Our correspondent has asked to remain anonymous.)
I had agents. Agents are supposed to be a good thing. And I think for the most part, they are. But their judgment is just as likely to be off as anyone else's, and that's why I have this nightmare audition story.

I had recently played Essie in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. For anyone who doesn't know the play, Essie fancies herself an undiscovered prima ballerina, and has been taking lessons for years, and spends almost the entire show dancing (really badly) around the stage. According to her own dancing teacher, "...she STINKS." So theoretically you DON'T have to be good, or even knowledgeable, about dancing to play this role (although Ann Miller played her in the movie). I have a little bit of knowledge and experience, but I would NEVER at any point in my life have presented myself as a legitimate "en pointe" ballet dancer.

God bless my (former) agents (the agency is now long since disbanded) - they decided, based on my having done Essie, to send me up for ANOTHER show where "an actress who could dance" was wanted - please bring toe shoes. So I went, toe shoes in hand, to find that what they really wanted was a versatile actress for multiple roles which would require being creative with movement and not uncomfortable in toe shoes. I got the part. In all honesty, I shouldn't have, but I did. (This is not the nightmare story - but here it comes.)

So my lovely, well-meaning agents, bolstered by my undeserved success (and, I suppose, thinking that my hesitancy to audition for that role to begin with was false modesty), arranged for me to return from that role to an audition for THE RED SHOES... yes, the Broadway musical that died HARD: 51 previews and 5 performances.

According to the breakdowns, they wanted a true triple-threat. It was THE RED SHOES, so true ballerinas were required. It was a musical, so serious pipes were required. Acting was definitely going to be involved, but it was unquestionably third priority. So really, they wanted a "ballerina-singer who could act." I, on the other hand, did (and do) classify myself as an "actress who can sing and dance." I had that discussion with my agents - more than once. They were CONVINCED that I could do this. And in spite of my DEEP protestations, they somehow convinced me that I should at least give it a shot.

Oh, dear.

Well, I wasn't TOTALLY unprepared. One of my fellow actors was a choreographer, and knew that my skills were very limited, and graciously agreed to choreograph a two-minute piece for me. He also coached me as best he could - BP, wherever you are, you are a saint! - and so I wrapped up my contract and headed back to NYC for an audition I KNEW I had no business going to. But then, I'd had no business, really, going to the one before, and I'd gotten cast in that one, so... why not?

Against my better judgment, I showed up to the audition. At least I had the right clothes on - dance clothes. But I knew INSTANTLY that I was way, WAY out of my element. First of all, I wasn't overweight by any means - not even by actress standards - but by ballet standards? Well, I was probably twice the size of every other girl there. Food hadn't passed the lips of any of those girls in years (unless it was on a roundtrip ticket). And I was watching them all warm up and mark through their steps - as easily as breathing. Every single one of them was a REAL ballerina, from ABT, or NYCB, or the Joffrey (I heard them all talking). There weren't ANY other "actresses who dance" there. I wanted to turn and run. And I should have. But I thought that would make me look bad (to my agents), so I decided to stick it out... but with candor.

My name was called, and I entered the room. The auditors were all sitting at the table, and I walked over to hand them my headshot and music, introduce myself... you know the drill. In the spirit of candor and full disclosure, I told them straight out, "Hey, here's the thing. I am NOT a dancer. I fake well, but I am NOT a dancer, and my agents INSISTED that I come so here I am. But I know you're all really busy, and that you have real dancers out there to see, so I'm happy just to say 'hi' and 'thanks' and let you get on with your day."

Alas. No. They were so sweet. So supportive. They asked if I had a piece (I did). They asked if I was prepared to do it (I was). They said they would like to see it (I still don't know why). And so began the LONGEST TWO MINUTES OF MY LIFE (and I have no doubt two of the longest minutes of theirs - for that day, at least). I have also have no doubt whatsoever that literally every single thing I did for those two minutes was a complete affront to the dancers/choreographers that were sitting at the table, and I was painfully conscious of that for every microsecond of each of those 120 seconds (but, hey - who was counting?).

When I finished, the room was utterly silent... until I began laughing. They were all trying so hard to be kind, but they finally gave in and started laughing, too. And although the audition itself was a nightmare, it DID end well. As I went to collect my music, they all stood up (still laughing) and shook my hand, thanked me for coming in, told me I had "HUGE chutzpah" (and yes, that's an exact quote), and by golly if there was a role that didn't require dancing they'd call me back. I thanked them for their generosity and sense of humor and said that I wouldn't hold my breath, but that I appreciated the thought and wished them the best of luck in their search. (And never, NEVER again after that accepted an audition that I didn't think I belonged at.)