Archive for June, 2017

Quote of the day: WRITING

June 27, 2017


One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.

–Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Quote of the day: WHITMAN

June 21, 2017


Walt Whitman passionately adopted the garb of Soldier’s Missionary. He began to develop a routine – the essential infrastructure of any profession. He started, as he said, by “fortifying myself with previous rest, the bath, clean clothes, a good meal, and as cheerful an appearance as possible.” Before he sallied forth, he prepared a grab bag of treats, including candy, fruit, writing supplies, tobacco, socks, cookies, underwear. He would then set forth to the hospital wards and sessions of “visiting” that might last anywhere from two hours to four or five hours. He embraced his work with everything he had. “Behold,” he had written earlier in Leaves of Grass (as if foreshadowing his work in the hospitals), “I do not give lectures or a little charity. When I give I give myself.”

–Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life

In last week’s New Yorker

June 19, 2017

Before even having a look at this week’s issue, I want to make some notes about last week’s unusually good issue.

First of all, I hope Rachel Aviv has a really good therapist. She consistently does in-depth, long-term reporting on some of the most grim topics in American society, exposing herself to endless accounts of trauma and abuse. Her story “Memories of a Murder” is a perfect example. In the tiny town of Beatrice, Nebraska, a 68-year-old widow was raped and murdered in 1987. The crime remained unsolved for two years until a farmer who enjoyed watching crime shows on television took on the job of unpaid private investigator and with the expert advice of a local psychologist succeeded in concocting a story that resulted in the arrest and conviction of six small-town residents, several of them mentally ill or developmentally disabled. Years later a DNA test showed that the blood and semen at the crime site belonged to a juvenile delinquent whose grandmother lived in the same building and had subsequently died of AIDS.  The point of Aviv’s long, absorbing article is that detectives and psychological professionals can be so attached to a narrative that they can convince innocent people that they committed crimes they had nothing to do with. (Online the title of the article is more pointed: “Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit.”)But it’s also a dismaying tale about the ignorance and preconceptions that face outsiders in a small town.

To balance out the grimness, there’s David Sedaris writing about his alcoholic mother (“Why Aren’t You Laughing?”) and another brilliant Shouts & Murmurs piece by Paul Rudnick, “Jared & Ivanka’s Guide to Mindful Marriage.” My favorite: “Family is everything. We treasure the special moments, like the time our kids used their crayons to make Jared a construction-paper subpoena. We have game nights, when we play such favorites as Pin the Tail on Whoever’s Out of Favor, Let’s Dress Jeff Sessions in Doll Clothes, and Who Can Hug Mommy Without Touching Her Hair?”

I got through college without having to read “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Esteemed classicist Stephen Greenblatt, in “The Invention of Sex,” makes him sound even more entertainingly bizarre than I imagined, with his account of a spiritual orgasm shared with his mother and his fixation on how “some people can do things with their bodies that others find impossible. ‘Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together.’ Others, as he personally had witnessed, could sweat whenever they chose, and there were even people who could ‘produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.”’ ”

What else? Zadie Smith writes a beautifully detailed and empathetic profile decoding the work of a young black British painter and writer named Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (“A Bird of Few Words”). I enjoyed reading Andrew Sean Greer’s short story “It’s a Summer Day,” though I couldn’t help noticing that it’s the second piece of fiction the New Yorker has published in a month that centers on a writer winning an obscure prize. I admire critic-at-large Kelefa Sanneh’s music writing, though his essay “The Persistence of Prog-Rock” indulges in some historical revisionism. When I was growing up, contemporary bands like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were viewed as “art-rock,” a different flavor but related to Zappa and the Mothers, David Bowie, and other arty rockers. And my memory is that the term “prog-rock” was never used in those days. It’s been tossed around familiarly only in retrospect by the people who weren’t even alive then.

From the deep archives: Kate Valk and BRACE UP!

June 18, 2017

I have no idea what to expect from A PINK CHAIR (IN PLACE OF A FAKE ANTIQUE),  the new piece that the Wooster Group is developing in honor of Polish theatermaker Tadeusz Kantor, but I’m eagerly anticipating getting a peek at it when it has its world premiere at Bard College’s SummerScape festival next month. Meanwhile, I find myself rooting around in my various writings about the Wooster Group over the years, much of which I’ve already posted in my online archive. But then there’s this brief interview with Kate Valk that I did in 1991 when I was writing a column for the Village Voice called Playing Around. The Wooster Group was in the midst of developing Brace Up!, its layered adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Brace Up! was a star turn for Kate Valk, who served as master of ceremonies, androgynously attired in a chopped-off black “Japanese” wig and a man’s suit (Dafoe’s costume from Route 1&9, actually).

Her role corresponds to that of the maid in Chekhov’s play, she said when I interviewed her at the Garage one afternoon during wartime, which in turn refers to her own history with the Wooster Group. “I started off doing costumes, then props, then stage managing. Now that’s my role onstage.” But her performance is also based on two Japanese forms of presentational acting: the clowns in kyogen (the comic interludes in Noh theater) and the benshi (performers who narrated silent films and sometimes became more popular than the films’ stars). Japan became a fixation after Valk and director Elizabeth LeCompte stopped in Tokyo on their way back from a Wooster Group tour of Australia; the group spent a year studying Japanese movies (anything starring Toshiro Mifune) and tapes of Noh and kyogen. They used that research to create a mask through which to perform Three Sisters.

Going back and re-reading the column now, I’m struck by two things: I refer to the interview taking place “during wartime.” This was during the presidency of Bush Senior and the short-lived skirmish we now refer to as the Gulf War, a big deal at the time that now feels like a faint footnote compared to everything that has happened since then. Later in the column, talking about theater auteur Richard Foreman, I report that he is planning to collaborate with William Finn (of Falsettos fame) on a musical called Eating Yourself Alive. The musical never happened, perhaps needless to say, and I had forgotten all about its fleeting existence until this very minute.

You can read the whole column online here.

Good stuff online: Lincoln Center Theater Review’s OSLO issue

June 16, 2017

Lincoln Center Theater’s in-house journal, LCT Review, consistently assembles high-quality interviews, excerpts, and tangential background information to illuminate the plays that the theater produces. The issue devoted to J. T. Rogers’s Oslo, which just won the Tony Award for best play of the season, is an especially good example. You can pick up a copy of the journal in the lobby of Lincoln Center Theater (you can toss in a “suggested donation” if you like) or read it online here.

The play dramatizes the real-life story of two Norwegian diplomats who stage-managed the secret negotiations between Israel and Palestine that led to the Oslo Accords — a brief, probably never-to-be-repeated moment of international diplomacy that led to a famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat in 1990. The play builds to that shining moment of hope, and the audience is left both with a feeling of joy at the sense of possibility and a sinking feeling of hopelessness, because we know that we are no closer than ever to seeing a resolution of the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

The journal goes way beyond duplicating the themes and facts of the play but surrounds it with alternate perspectives. “You in the Wrong Place,” a beautiful piece of writing by Naama Goldstein, captures tiny moments of the author’s journey through uncomfortable shifts in her identities as both Israeli and outsider. Raja Shehadeh’s “The Peace That Ended Peace” arms Oslo audiences with a grain of salt with which to measure the sweet conclusion at which the play arrives. Milbry Polk’s “The Love of Desert Lands” introduces Gertrude Bell, the extraordinary British woman who helped organize the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks, sometimes called the Mother of Iraq. And Chris Voss’s “The Art of Negotiation” offers practical advice useful not just for international hostage crises but for everyday life:

“Whether it’s in the office or around the family dinner table, don’t avoid honest, clear conflict. Engaging in it will get you the best car price, the higher salary, and the largest donation. It will also save your marriage, your friendship, and your family. One can be an exceptional negotiator, and a great person, only by both listening and speaking clearly and empathetically, by treating one’s counterparts — and oneself — with dignity and respect, and, most of all, by being honest about what one wants and what one can — and cannot — do. Every negotiation, every conversation, every moment of life is a series of small conflicts that, managed well, can rise to creative beauty. Embrace them.”


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