Lost in the Forest of Arden

Disrupting gender expectations would seem to be an easy task for a play like As You Like It. Reveling in the language of love and flirtation, the action covers secret identities, power grabs, bold set-ups, and dramatic reveals. There is much to be explored here: women disguised as men, courtly denizens presenting as shepherds, conflicted rulers and heirs, strong female bonds, fights, music, poetry, and a forest where exiles leave behind the demands of their former lives.

This year’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival included all of these things, but also offered an expanded interpretation of many roles. The director, Rosa Joshi, has described her interest in the play as centered around the hopefulness it provides in dark times.

With the Forest of Arden as a place of transformation through female leadership, Joshi sees the character of Rosalind as finding her true self through her performance of gender. Describing herself as “text-driven,” by honoring the text but approaching the play with a healthy dose of irreverence, Joshi mentions in an online interview that she is interested in “losing some of the preciousness” in her approach to classical texts. 

I am a fan of approachable Shakespeare. American Players Theater, among others, have been digging into this territory for many years. Unfortunately for the production in Ashland, the “preciousness” is not only lost, but the play is gutted with poorly chopped text, making for awkward passages and non-sensical sequences. An introductory chorus has been inserted to provide background from deleted scenes, and conversations have been cut short or omitted altogether. 

Especially disorienting was the displacement of a key text from relatively early in the play to the conclusion of the performance. Despite a visually stunning presentation, the new placement strips “All the world’s a stage…” of its context and meaning. Although the famous words were beautifully delivered in this production by a group of women, the text is ascribed to a male character. Relocating this passage robbed Rosalind, the main female character, of the play’s closing entreaty, one of the few epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays that is delivered by a woman. This was a confusing choice for a director who is interested in expanding women’s roles in theater.

The casting was fun–finally introducing gay love!–but other than a couple of standout performances, the changes did not add any nuance to the story. Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior was a highlight, presenting a leader who, with grace and generosity, deftly anchored the exiles of the forest. Kate Hurster glowed as Celia, echoing a similar sincerity and generous spirit. Sadly, other characters were difficult to appreciate. The text was so disjointed that many roles were robbed of the words and interactions that usually provide complexity and subtlety for actors to mine. Jaques felt out of context without the lengthy banter around the character’s melancholy state, and Rosalind–a great character with much charismatic potential–was all boldness and bluster, with little variation. As Taylor Leigh Ciambra has described elsewhere, all of the excitement about a gender-bending approach is lost when the production still ends with straight weddings, resolving itself as “another story for the cis/hetero canon.”

I agree with David Templeton that the director’s alterations were “actually working against Shakespeare’s giddy simplicity.” This is a play with a frothy storyline, but it is ripe below the surface, filled with gorgeous language and stinging wit. Some of the pleasure was present in this production, but most was sadly tossed off as sarcasm or edited into oblivion.

Was this a more accessible version, less “precious,” easier to understand for viewers who are new to Shakespeare? Maybe, and I hope seeing it will embolden these fresh viewers to try out another. But I adore this play, and this production put me to sleep. Despite the director’s intentions–including some really interesting ideas about transformational space, female leadership, and power–the end result was a playful romp, sans bite, sans focus, sans beautiful language, sans interest. 

No sound? No fury. And no signifying of any kind.

Last night I heard a performance in an outdoor theater. What I mean is, I actually heard it. Thanks to the magic of technology my theater experience has been transformed.

It was only last week that, after a few years of declining hearing and a recent check-in that documented new loss in the mid-range, I finally plunked down the funds and acquired hearing aids. I’ve been told my type of hearing loss is fairly common and that I’m brave for dismissing vanity and using devices. But there is more behind this decision that just being happy to hear again. I’m also hoping to help my long-term brain health. When hearing loss in middle age has been linked to dementia in later life, I’m definitely open to any potential improvement in the aural-processing department.

the newly acquired devices

My hearing (or lack thereof) has been on my mind recently due to a job change. I’ve moved from having my own office–with a door that could be shut–to working in an open plan office. I sit with 3 other people in a group of work spaces around a shared table; four other people sit in a  similar arrangement in the same room; three more will join in another “pod” very soon. It is a social group with lots of casual meetings and chatting amidst phone calls, keyboard clacking, and photocopier noise. I knew it would be a difficult transition for someone like me, who prefers a quiet working style. What I did not expect was my inability to participate in conversations that are layered on top of the background noise. It’s not that it’s difficult to hear people, it is just impossible to focus on their words with all of the other noise. 

The daily office environment is just one problem I’ve experienced. In the last couple of weeks I have attended three presentations that, despite their similar structures, have provided very different sound environments:

  • The first: a talk presented by a local art organization. Situated in an echoey room with stone walls and few attendees, in the introduction of the low-voiced speaker, it was also mentioned that no microphone would be provided. I made sure to sit near the front so there would be at least some possibility of hearing something. When the speaker faced the audience–perfect! I could hear everything that was said. When the speaker faced the screen, or when an audience member asked a question? I got maybe 25%. And when people in the audience whispered to each other during the presentation? Nothing. The room was so acoustically bad that I was unable to differentiate sounds. 
  • The second: a training at work, held in a large, high-ceilinged room with multiple tables that each sat 6-8 attendees. Despite having a fantastic tech setup, the presenters decided not to use microphones. Again, when they faced me I could hear everything. If they faced the other side of the room, or the screen, I’d say 25% comprehension was a stretch. When the presenter, finally with mic in hand, asked questions of the attendees but neglected to hand the mic to the person answering? Well, I don’t think anyone heard.
  • The last: another talk at a local gallery. The presenter used a microphone! The room was right-sized for the audience and acoustically appropriate for the activity! Could I hear? Yes, of course, everyone heard!

The theater experience was a bonus. I had forgotten about it at the initial appointment when tasked with imagining how the hearing-aid adventure was going to work. It was only at the fitting that I thought about my regular ushering commitment. I had one play the coming weekend and two more within a couple of weeks. Having directed many audience members to the venue’s free hearing-assistance devices over the years, I remembered that a recent renovation at the theater included an induction loop system that works with T-coil devices.

I asked my audiologist about it. I was in luck. The hearing aids I selected include an option for T-coil. I was instructed to turn on the T-coil when I got to the theater (press a button, super easy) and see how it worked. Would it work for me? Would it be an improvement on the crackly headphone devices that are available at the theater? Or would I sit through yet another play missing words whenever an actor turns away, or having the device cutout if I shifted in my seat?

Good news (great news): the T-coil hearing aid is amazing. Easy. Seamless. Non-intrusive and discrete. I heard every word from the stage: beautiful, whispered, shouted, sung, gut-wrenching, gentle, or gleeful, I heard them all. 

I am so grateful for an organization that seriously considers the needs of their fans. Theater has an aging audience, but hearing loss happens throughout life. How incredible to have the plays more accessible to a larger number of the attendees.

For more everyday situations, improvement doesn’t seem so impossible to accomplish. Sure, induction loop systems are great if attendees have the appropriate devices, but scheduling right-sized rooms and using microphones for large meetings are not that difficult. And luckily the hearing aids are already helping with my open office environment (although I still miss my office). Related, although it deserves a dedicated post of its own, #nomorecraptions is providing great info (and a much-needed kick in the ass) about closed captions for online videos.

Basically, if you can’t hear the sound, then you don’t get the fury, and it does indeed, signify nothing. Enable your audience to make sense of your activity. Make use of available technology. 

Word & Image, Song & Story

Fun Home was on stage at the Forward Theater here in Madison during the fall. I was excited to see the play, and was curious to learn how this funny yet intense graphic novel about personal identity and unpacking familial mythology would translate into musical theater. How better to present a sensitive, heart-rending story about an artist figuring out who she is in relation to the loss of her father, than on a small stage, with a packed house and marvelous actors, and a musical score? It could be called genre-busting. But after seeing the play, having the chance to listen to some other old soundtrack chestnuts, and diving back into a few favorite graphic novels, I wonder if maybe musicals and comics have always been places for difficult stories. Loaded with drama and pain, yet punctuated with real joy, this play might just be the inevitable coming together of seemingly disparate artistic forms.

Musical theater is the natural home for wrenching heartbreak. I was reminded of this when, for reasons of nostalgia—or possibly in an attempt to distract me during a card game–I was recently subjected to not one, but two dramatic, emotional soundtracks: Camelot (original Broadway cast), and Les Miserables (original London cast). The distraction was perhaps effective (or it might have been just a lucky win for the kid), but the impact of this music persisted beyond the usual earworm.

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Camelot (1967)

Camelot. Wrenching heartbreak? Isn’t that just a silly 1960s Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave movie spectacle, with medieval hippies flitting about the English countryside/sound stage, playing at courtly ladies and knights? Sure, but at its heart, Camelot is a tragedy, a tale of the failure to contain evil, the devastating fall of a culture centered on love and joy. The play was based, of course, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose story humanized its medieval characters in a consideration of political ambition, emotional devotion, and utopian yearnings. Toss in some dreamy love songs, armored masculine posturing, and conniving offspring, and you have one complicated story-telling apparatus. I could go on about the similar structure underlying Les Mis–love, faith, greed, revolution–but my experience of this play is too heavily skewed. My 20-year-old-self shed a lot of tears during the production I had the privilege of experiencing in London; I still can’t consider this play separate from my original context for it. 

Although musicals have always easily handled complex storytelling, Fun Home is not just another excellent example. Something else happens in this play when a graphic novel is incorporated into a stage experience. This isn’t just a play with actors telling a story. This is a play that shows an artist creating a work. When the adult Alison is on stage, watching the the scenes from her childhood and drawing what she sees, the play seamlessly melds two mediums: drawing and acting. While the story unfolds the audience sees the artist remembering and recording and creating. The stage presentation captures something that is so central in the structure of the novel: the act of drawing that not only frames the difficult narrative, but is it’s very telling. It is in the remembering and drawing where Alison finds her story. On stage, the art-making and the theater experiences are so cohesive, so neatly intertwined. What is accomplished in their close integration is a view into the experience of memory and creation. The activities involved in discovery, sense-making, and understanding are the very story that is presented in this play.

Other graphic novels have certainly handled complex and challenging stories. With visual elements emphasizing concepts that would be lost in pure text formats, the graphic novel is a powerful medium for difficult narratives. The images of water in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, the laughter and faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi’s books; the cityscapes in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or Jessica Abel’s La Perdida–these novels present personal narratives, visual and textual, some autobiographical, all beautifully drawn, hilarious, scary, fun, and heart-breaking.

But the form can also powerfully transform the presentation of technical material. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss not only combines biography, history, and science education, she accomplishes this using a format that pays homage to the work of her subject, Marie Curie. By turning to drawings on cyanotypes, the work references the photographic exposure that was critical to the discovery of radiation. Its physical form is an important element in how the book is able to convey its story.

At UW-Madison, the cartoonist Lynda Barry is using drawing to explore the creative process with not only artists, but scientists. Her students have created the Applied Comics Kitchen, but there are also other efforts in visual science communication around Madison, such as JKX Comics.  It’s amazing, fascinating stuff. This is not just about images, these are explorations into different kinds of stories and story-telling.

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It is exciting to see compound productions like this–graphic novels and theater,  storytelling that is both visual and physical. The combination of text and image, music and communication, it’s an interdisciplinarity that is so powerful. I’m not talented enough to ever be as moving and charismatic as Karen Olivio and the two younger actresses I saw in the role of Alison, but few people ever really get to that level. I do, though, think about story-telling, about how to explore and better represent complex narratives. I’m not sure my answers will necessarily involve singing (actually, I am quite certain they will not), but there are so many other forms available. A wide-ranging consideration is an important place to start.

 

Fair Rosalind

Rosalind is always better when she is disguised as Ganymede. The recent closing night of APT’s production of As You Like It proved it once again as Melisa Pereyra’s ease and charm stretched all the way through the pouring rain to reach even the ushers seated in the last row.

I love this play. It is not the I die, you die, we all die experience of Hamlet or other of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Instead, this play has bad poetry plucked from trees; banter between fools, shepherds, and melancholy philosophers; beautiful language, songs, and famous lines; a cross-dressing heroine; and a convenient wrap-up at the end.

When Rosalind sheds her feminine garb and appears as Ganymede, she/he just has so much damn fun. Ganymede is all experiment and exploration. He tests and prods, feeling what is possible. He is the very force of creation; he is the edge, the gray area, the liminal place where inventiveness resides. But he is, at the same time, Rosalind. It is really she (in disguise) who is the explorer, the mad scientist, the inventor, the instigator. And I love her for it.

The Path
Carol Pylant, The Path (oil on aluminum)

As You Like It rests easily in works by the Wisconsin and Chicago-area painter, Carol Pylant. Her courtyards are so still, populated only occasionally by stray dogs or peacocks. The spaces are quiet, with stone flooring and archways, plastered walls, signs of age but of indeterminate, and thus suspended, time. But these spaces, so beautifully rendered in mind-boggling detail, open onto disparate landscapes of green forests and wooded paths, sunlight and trees, overgrown but inviting. Rosalind waits against the stone wall in the spare courtyard, but Ganymede runs off into the distant woods, his feet nimble among the roots and uneven paths.

Artigas Spring
Carol Pylant, Artigas Spring (oil on linen)

The boundary between the formal and the unkempt, the ordered and the wild, the confined and the free, is so clearly represented in this work but cannot be neatly comprehended. The paintings are unsettling because of this very disconnect: the spaces don’t match. The constructed courtyards that open to unstructured wilderness are too close, too accessible. In their very realism the paintings proclaim their place in the imaginary, as when the audience lets itself believe that Rosalind could ever be taken as Ganymede. The painting is its own referent; the play’s the thing.

Before the End
Carol Pylant, Before the End (oil on aluminum)

But sound is also the thing, especially when it’s Jason Moran playing piano at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. There’s piano, and then there are the sounds that Mr. Moran creates. The rumbling, so quiet at first, building slowly until it fills my head, forcing out any other thought, requiring, demanding, clear, sole focus on the sound itself. Sound that split the world of piano into two: what I had known before, and what I understood after. The former was the constructed world, the courtyard where Rosalind sits attired in her courtly manners, suspended in time, waiting. The latter is possibility: the overgrown, tangled woods where Ganymede freely uncovers love of all kinds.

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Jason Moran: Celebrating Willie Pickens & Muhal Richard Abrams. Logan Center Performance Hall, September 30, 2018.

Soothing balm for difficult days? Maybe, but the music, the paintings, and the play all embody the quintessential dichotomy of court and green world, the opposition between constrained manner and unfettered potential. Luckily for viewers and listeners, there is a space where characters shed expected behaviors and take on new identities, where music is released into sound, where buildings open into wilderness, offering up a celebration of creativity and imagination, the joy of discovery, the release of constraints, and the pleasure of making something new.

(Update: Carol Pylant’s work will be featured in an exhibition during spring 2019 at Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago. A publication, Carol Pylant: Portal Paintings, 2009-2019, will accompany the show, featuring essays by me and Buzz SpectorDetails will be shared about the catalogue and the exhibition as soon as they are available!).

Celebrating Connection

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Lucas Koehler Combo, Union Hair Parlor, ALL Jazz Fest 2018, Schenk’s Corners.

On top of a recent realization about some professional fails, mostly surrounding communication and an inability to see clearly, the other day I took 10 minutes and three trips down the hall to print one shipping label. This was yet another clear failure: too much time to complete a (usually) simple task.

As failures go–especially when compared to the rest of the day’s realizations–the label printing was relatively low-impact: a time-waster and frustrating, but that’s about the extent of the damage. Luckily the day ended with some local jazz: #thebestjazzisinhairsalons fully expresses the restorative, rejuvenating, community experience that provided me with much-needed perspective and release after a difficult week.

Of course there are other failures, some of remarkable scale, with a much much larger impact that can’t be remedied by jazz, no matter how awesome the music. A highlight of my difficult week was the opportunity to hear from someone who headed up one such spectacle, Jim Lasko of the now-closed RedMoon Theater. In a conversation with the Chazen’s director, Amy Gilman, Jim talked about the social impulse of his theater work which, at RedMoon, took the form of taking theater into the neighborhoods and streets of Chicago, in his words, “engineering new ways of being together.” The motivation was to make theater more accessible and bring performance to bigger, different audiences.

But Jim was not at the art museum to talk about street theater. He was invited because of what has been identified as a massive fail: the Great Chicago Fire Festival of 2014. I won’t rehash the story here, as it has been amply covered elsewhere–Jim has even talked and written about the event and the aftermath. I am more interested in his process of recovery, how he moved forward, and his perspective on creative work.

Jim talked of theater as a living activity, he compared it to a group jumping out of an airplane. With opening night the equivalent of the ground quickly approaching, the group has to work together intensely, and fast, to prevent disaster. The joy and excitement is in that process of making, of attempting and failing and trying again. It is thrilling, it is inspirational. We make art because we have to, we are driven to keep attempting it over and over. We fail every day, which is an important thing to remember as we get up and try again. But aside from the daily face-plants, in the wake of massive fail, what makes us pick up the pieces and try it again?

After the closure of RedMoon, Jim says he talked to many people about his next steps. He talked about failure to corporate groups, and he returned to work on an unfinished PhD. Recently he teamed up to open a new maker and gathering space called GuildRow.

After the presentation I was able to ask Jim about the recovery, the aftermath. He had talked about it in personal terms in the conversation on stage, but I wanted to know how his team responded, and how they, as a group, recovered after hitting the ground so hard. After some thought he revealed something about the theater company that was striking: he said they worked through the difficulties because they loved each other. A company like RedMoon that was dedicated to bringing theater outside, into neighborhoods, and making it participatory, this company was comprised of intensely committed individuals who fiercely loved their work. They ran on a personal devotion to shared goals and to each other. This is not, of course, every organization. But it seems completely reasonable, maybe even necessary, for a non-profit street theater group.

I am intrigued that Jim emphasized the personal in his presentation. He was not there to talk about failure. His comprehension is contrary to the corporate lingo approach to failure which, through it’s focus on venture capital, minimizes and even erases the personal–the pain and suffering, the lived experience, the frustration, anger, and confusion. But in Jim’s telling was a sense of a community, not only within the active theater company, but following the disaster. He described turning to his personal community to assess and advise, to consider and imagine. This was a way of doing important individual work, human work. It is restorative, it is personal, and it is vitally important.

Which takes me to a different theater project that I was lucky to witness recently, here in Madison. Lines: A Theatre LILA Invention is a collaboratively written play that gives voice to five female playwrights of color. The play was a complex intertwining of stories, with actors playing multiple roles. The beauty of the play was not only in the acting, the staging, and the direction, but in the stories that were told. These are voices that are rarely heard in theater: beauty shop conversations, playground interactions, hopscotch, hope for the future, lovers’ arguments, the daily dangers of being a woman, black, lesbian, latina, muslim, young, or even middle-aged.

It was a play that conveyed the personal, but also emphasized the importance of connections and the potential of community, not only in how the play was created or what was represented on stage, but in the conversations with the audience that followed. This is the same force behind Jim Lasko’s theatrical efforts: a desire to connect. In moving performance outside into the street, or by collaboratively developing a script with other writers of color, these efforts expand the reach of theater. They breathe in deeply and open their arms, inviting more people into their embrace. They grow the audience.

Although connections can be uncomfortable, as with some of the questions that were asked during the talkback after the Lines performance, or in the direct personal challenges that were issued during the play, they are essential for the success of art making. I imagine that for some people, like those who enjoy the anonymity of a dark theater, RedMoon’s street performances would have been quite difficult. But connection takes many shapes. Engagement may be a buzzword, but we use it for a reason. Lasting impressions–wonder–happens when people are able to connect, with each other, with art, with music, with something outside of themselves.

These theater efforts are so different, yet both relied on the very personal dedication of their members. Understanding this devotion and commitment transforms notions of success and failure. A fizzled public art event is insignificant when the connections created through it, or the exhibition of an artist’s work, a collaborative theater event, or even a jazz celebration (pictured above), are prioritized. Instead of focusing on failure, maybe it’s is more important to foreground engagement and connection, and their restorative, sustaining potential. Who did you connect with today? We fail daily, but so do we achieve. Connecting every day, staying engaged, that’s the hard part. But when it happens? Wow.

 

Stories

Another play-reading at APT, the last of this year’s Winter Words series. A beautifully written fable about the power of naming, the force of metaphor. A woman learns. She farms, she helps to birth foals, she takes labor into her own hands, she controls her name and thus uses language to define herself and her world.

A friend sends me a story and asks for feedback. In our discussion I encourage him to practice his storytelling skills. So he does, at a local story slam. He performs wonderfully, taking third place. He has written for years, has conducted interviews, and even participated in a writing workshop as he works to shape a long and complex personal story into a book. But this is his first ever outing on a story-telling stage. I guess I am now a coach.

And this week I am fresh off a professional development program. OK, not just any program. THE program in my museum world: the Getty Leadership Institute NextGen program.

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I should be elated. Of course I am thrilled that I was able to participate, thankful for the support. But I am also stunned, mostly by the sheer volume of the words that have poured down upon me over the last month. Words and ideas like wave after wave, and even two days after completing the program I still feel as if I am swamped and drowning. It almost doesn’t matter where I try to start swimming, I am too far out to make progress in any direction. One of my cohort wrote that she is still trying to figure out what in the hell happened to her over the onsite week. I inhabit this same space.

It is the space where words are not yet complete. They are forming, but they are still sharp and the ideas they communicate have dangerous edges. I tried to use some of the words today and they felt hard in my mouth, they came out rough, I had to work to make them not cut. What the hell happened? I have so much to say but no words for any of it yet.

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It’s like the bones that are excavated at La Brea. They are lifted out of their encompassing mire, then soaked and carefully cleaned. The darkened solution is strained to capture every seedpod and insect part that was caught during the same era as the bones of the animal that perished, trapped in tar. I need time to sift through that debris, to examine the minutiae, to discover what corollary life exists.

The words are the tools that scrape away the accretions, they transform a mass of tar into a trove of scientific wonders. Like knives into fowl, words transform the world. What will be found, what will be created, when the bird becomes food, when mammoth is transformed into fossil? What happens when my friend learns to be comfortable on stage telling his story, or when I get command of mi idioma, mi lengua? Necesito controlar mi lengua. Y luego, para usarlo.