Monday, October 29, 2007

Meredith Garniss Interview

I do so digg an interview where I am the answer to the question. The interviewer was Pagan Kennedy and the interviewee was Meredith Garniss, painter, puppeteer, engineer and head honcho of Willoughby & Baltic, an automata and art gallery and marionette theatre where I performed this past July and where the ill-fated production of Macbeth rehearsed.

In the Ideas Section of The Boston Sunday Globe, Kennedy asks Garniss:

I hear you also became the home to one of the world's only "talking mimes."

To which Garniss responds:

The talking mime [who] performed in the gallery this summer was Ian Thal. He's multitalented and does mime, dance, poetry, and puppetry. I think it's OK if the mime talks as long as he leaves the audience speechless.

Garniss has a lot to say about running an art space, combining engineering with art, and working with artists of many media.

I already covered the issue of "talking mimes" with my students in Gloucester but I take issue with the idea that I am "one of the world's only"-- there are plenty of mimes whose work is against the stereotype-- and most of us are chatterboxes off-stage.

Willoughby & Baltic is hosting the Dorkbot Haunted Parlor this Halloween week at 195g Elm Street, Somerville, MA in Davis Square.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

That other Macbeth

As mentioned previously, the Macbeth production I had been in was cancelled, so when I attended previews for the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of the "Scottish Play" as an usher, I could not help but compare the two productions in my mind.

First of all, ASP's Macbeth is excellent. Much of the scuttlebutt about the Boston scene was about the decision to use an all female cast. However, rather than creating some campy Macbeth in drag, they delivered a striking production that involved some first rate actors in roles that they normally would not be allowed to play. After all, if a director can choose to cast (in my case) an male Ashkenazi Jew as a multitude of Scotsmen, why not women (of any ethnicity) as Scotsmen?

As an audience member, I was particularly excited by Marya Lowry's powerful Macbeth, and Bobbie Steinbach's strength and versatility as Duncan, the Porter, Warlike Siward, and one of the witches (this trio of witches, in their second appearance, use some physical comedy to make a vulgar pun that gives some credence to Alan K. Farrar's intuition that in the original production the witches were performed by the comedians in the troupe.) There was one actor (whom I will leave unnamed because the performance was a preview and I have confidence that subsequent performances will be improved upon) who has shown great comedic skills in other plays, but seemed to introduce a sarcastic or ironic tone of voice into what was supposed to be a tragic scene-- but that was the only false note of the show-- and it was a mistake that only someone of talent could make.

As said earlier, I was curious to see how other actors were going to attack roles for which I had rehearsed this past summer. Denise Cormier's version of the Bloody Captain was a fine version, but simply not how I imagined the role-- the joy of a classical repertoire is that roles are constantly being reinterpreted. As I developed the role, my Captain had become more stylized and inspired more by Odissi dancer Sonali Mishra's interpretation of Devi Mahakali (better known in the Anglophone world as the goddess Kālī) and a Samurai puppet piece I had seen twice performed by Paul Vincent Davis; hers was more naturalistic. She was clearly in a situation where she had to put more imaginative work into her more central role as a witch.

To my disappointment, the role of the Old Man, Ross' father, was dropped from this production but did not injure the story. The practice of cutting or rearranging lines, scenes, or characters is actually not uncommon when performing Shakespeare, either due to the length of the play, or due to the logistics of casting. I miss the character and his lines, but I must admit, he is not essential to the plot. The scene between Lennox and the unnamed Lord, from Act III was a joy and I savoured the reading of the Lord's lines even more so because it had been shifted to Act IV, which meant that during intermission I had fretted that the scene had been dropped entirely. In Act V, Cormier now had the role of Seyton, and performed much as I had during rehearsals with the Lollygagging Players which only made me more envious of her costume.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bizarre Protest Sign Awards

Adam Holland has nominated a photograph I took at the October 7th, Dream for Darfur rally fo his "Bizarre Protest Sign Awards".

Monday, October 22, 2007

Mime Workshop in Gloucester

A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Gloucester to teach a mime workshop for the local high school's drama club. They were rehearsing Jonathan Rand's play Check, Please. I was unfamiliar with the play but have since discovered that it is one of the most popular contemporary plays performed by high school theatre troupes in the United States. The play included mime-character in one of the scenes who engages in a number of the cliché moves often associated with mime, such as "being trapped in an invisible box" and "pulling on a rope." However, the company, which is very much guided by the students' interests, also wanted some grounding in basic mime technique for the sake of developing some choreographed stage business.

Arriving at the Gloucester train station at about 11:20, I did what I always do when my artistic career takes me to another town, which is to play tourist. I had last been to Gloucester the summer before to perform at the now defunct Fishtown Artspace and so knew my way around.

Artifacts of a counter culture: Signs on telephone poles marking outside the original location of the now defunct Fishtown Artspace.

Ever a bibliophile, I took advantage of the sale on used books at Mystery Train Records, and came out with perhaps as many theatre books as I wanted to lug around that day at a cost that I would normally expect to pay for a single book at a used store in Boston, Cambridge or Somerville. A walk on the beach was particularly interesting when I noticed that due to the low tide, the wet sand would sink two or three inches under my boot-steps.

After my lunch, I strolled maybe a mile-and-a-half and arrived at the school shortly before the dismissal bell and squared away the business issues with the drama teacher before being led to the auditorium where the drama club was beginning to gather. I took off my shoes, introduced myself, and briefly explained my view of mime's relationship to everyday body language as poetry's relationship to everyday verbal language-- reciting Shakespeare's 28th sonnet as an example. I then invited the student actors onto the proscenium stage.

The student techies and production staff alternated between attending to their own business and observing as I introduced the actors to the corporeal mime scale, in all three dimensions (lateral, depth, and rotation.) Mime is a difficult form to learn, and even a two-hour workshop is only sufficient to give the most skeletal of introductions, but the students were enthusiastic and willing to learn. They also had the advantage of being a bit older than my students at Open Air Circus, and so have more developed nervous systems and were better able to imitate my isolation work, as well as articulate their interpretations of the meaning of some of the isolations and sequences (the way a lateral translation of the head might represent listening, while a forward translation of the head is more representative of looking.)

After our isolation exercises, I was ready to teach them their first illusion: "the wall." The methodology I have developed is to have the students place their hands on a genuine wall, so that they can experience the flatness and verticality of the wall's plane, and then experience each isolation (including relevés and pliés) of the body with their hands fixed on the wall, asking them to make observations about the focus of their eyes and the compensations they need to make in order to keep their hands fixed to the wall. I also asked them to observe how their hand automatically relaxes when pulled away from the wall. I noted that as with Aristotle's note that the "soul (psuche) is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so thought is the form of forms" (On The Soul, III 8 432a1) the hand in it's ability to grasp forms" that in mime theatre, the hand is analogous to the mind, in that it takes the form of the character's thoughts. I then had them experience taking steps along the wall so they could feel just how far they could go before needing to release their grasp of the wall. After several minutes of these experiments, meant to demonstrate that a mime's craft relies heavily on naturalistic observation, I invited them back to the stage, both to demonstrate that with this new found knowledge of walls and an ability to move the whole body in an articulate matter, one sells the reality of the imaginary wall far more than one would with a simple hand gesture, and gave them several minutes to experiment on their own, as I walked amongst them making minor corrections.

Being inquisitive students, they asked me questions in between exercises:

Q: What is the relationship between mime and European clown traditions?

A: In the European context, mime and clown are close cousins, with a common ancestor in commedia dell'arte.

Q: Is there a rule that mimes have to perform silently?

A: No. Many perform silently in observance of mime's independent standing as an art form much as painting and sculpture are independent of one another, but there is no reason why one cannot speak and mime simultaneously. I performed some of my first mime pieces with poetic recitation.

Q: Do mimes always perform with white makeup?

A: No. If a mime chooses to wear makeup, it can be any color, or alternately, the mime can perform without makeup, or with masks. All such things are acceptable.

All this allowed for digressions on the history of mime, allowing me to discuss Charlie Chaplin, Étienne Decroux, Jean Louis-Barrault and Marcel Marceau.

Our next set of exercises were in rope pulling (both horizontally and vertically) and a tug 'o war exercise (a favorite with younger kids, who seem to find walls too abstract) to emphasize ensemble work, as well as to demonstrate the principles of oppositional and sequential movement. After a brief break (due to the techies noting that I had kept the actors working for an hour and a half straight through) explored the extremes of rhythmic dynamics: shock, fondue, and immobility and spent the last few minutes creating tableaux with some of the skills we covered over the previous two hours.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Macbeth Cancelled

It's been a few weeks since I heard word, but I had neglected to blog about it.

The Macbeth production, for which I had been rehearsing, has now been cancelled. The actor playing Banquo had work commitments that conflicted with the rehearsal schedule and had to pull out just weeks before opening night and so the production had to be postponed. The actor playing Macbeth was from Los Angeles and so was only in Massachusetts for the summer, so both roles had to be recast, with an indefinite postponement. Eventually, with the change of schedule, there were no venues available and the show was cancelled.

Nonetheless, despite my disappointment, I must confess, my first Shakespeare production was a rewarding one, as it was my first experience of real intimacy with the Bard's writings and gotten me more involved in the community of Shakespeare bloggers like Alan K. Farrar, David Blixt and Duane Morin.

On the other hand, the Actors' Shakespeare Project are staging their own production of Macbeth which I am looking forward to seeing when I usher for them next week.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hecklers Abuse Genocide Survivors, October 7, 2007, Part 2

After a number of other blogs picked up the story I reported regarding the attempt to disrupt the October 7th Dream for Darfur rally at Boston City Hall Plaza, more information has turned up.

It appears that I was mistaken to assume that the group that came to heckle the genocide survivors who came to speak were only tangentially connected with either the national or state Green Party. I have since learned that they were more closely affiliated with the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party than I has suspectedd. I had assumed that the GRP was being unfairly dragged through the mud by Boston Anti-Zionist Action, as extremist fringe groups often falsely claim affiliations with more respectable groups. However as reported by Adam Holland, Solomonia, and Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub the "rotund bespectacled man" whom I photographed and spoke to at the rally was David Rolde. Rolde is not merely a registered member of the Green-Rainbow Party, but the former party secretary and a currently serving member of the GRP State Committee representing Middlesex County. The committee's job includes "[f]ormulating and disseminating statements of Party policy and platform".

I find it disturbing that an elected officer of any political party whose "Ten Key Values" includes nonviolence, respect for diversity, personal and global responsibility, would also have a leadership role in an organization whose actions include attempts harass and intimidate genocide survivors for talking about their experiences in a public forum, disseminate anti-Semitic propaganda on their website, and hold signs proclaiming support for Hezbollah, an armed paramilitary that initiated an unprovoked war in 2006 by attacking civilian targets in Israel.

Back in the 1990s, I was allied with the Greens, because they were talking electoral reform, feminism, and sustainable ecology and had Ralph Nader as their candidate during a period when Bill Clinton and Bob Dole's differences seemed slight. I started having some differences with the Greens on foreign policy when I found myself supporting Clinton's military interventions in Kosova to stop the massive human rights violations the Serbian government was visiting upon the Kosovar Albanians, and eventually drifted back to the Democrats when I noted a renewal of commitment to the social issues I cared about as well as with the necessity of having a progressive movement with strong foreign policy and counter-terrorism experience.

I have never been surprised by Republican politicians having connections with hate-groups (Trent Lott's connection with the CCC is an obvious example) however, I never expected virulent hateful bigot in the leadership of the Green Party.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Look Ma! I'm part of the Curriculum!

While glancing at technorati, (a search engine for the blogosphere for those of you who are new to blogs) I discovered that my earlier entry, "Breaking with Bread and Puppet" is being read by a class in the Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London. The class, which has set up its own blog is investigating the techniques and history of Bread and Puppet Theater with the aim of having students attempt to use similar methods to create their own work over the course of the semester. The professors are Nesreen Hussein and Matthew Cohen.

Despite my misgivings with what I view as Peter Schumann's forays into antisemitism and trivialization of the Holocaust, I have always thought there was great artistic value to his better works, both in techniques and content-- and I certainly see a legitimate need for theatre artists in training to become familiar with this sort of work. Had I not, I would not have worked with the troupe for as long as I did. I will be curious about how the class reacts to my criticism of the work they are attempting to emulate.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Hecklers Abuse Genocide Survivors, October 7, 2007

This past Sunday, I went down to the plaza outside Boston City Hall to attend a rally protesting the targeting of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit ethnic groups by the Sudanese military and Janjaweed militias that receive weapons from the Sudanese government and with whom they often coordinate attacks. Though the United Nations has yet to do so, this human rights disaster, which has taken between 200,000 and 450,000 lives depending on who is doing the counting, is recognized by the United States and other governments and NGOs as genocide,.

The rally, organized by a coalition of groups including Dream for Darfur and Save Darfur was one of those few instances of an event that made my normally cynical self feel hope for humanity. The main part of the rally included speakers representing genocide survivors ranging from a 95 year old Armenian man, to Rosian Zerner, (a Holocaust survivor whom I have mentioned elsewhere), to a survivor of the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields, to a young Bosnian Muslim survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, to a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide, to a Darfurian refugee currently attending Brandeis University, each passing a torch to one another and finally lighting an eternal flame for Darfur to bring to the 2008 Chinese Olympics to protest the People's Republic's financial, diplomatic and military backing of the Sudanese government.

However, every one of the speakers had to endure heckling from a tiny group of counter-protesters on the fringe of the rally. This group was identified by the
Boston Globe representing Boston Anti-Zionist Action and the Troops Out Now Coalition. These hecklers spouted verbal abuse at the survivors regardless of the survivors' native lands, skin colors, mother tongue, or religious belief. A quick check of the Boston Anti-Zionist Action blog shows them misrepresenting a protest that was calling for non-violent action as "a racist pro-war rally against Sudan organized by the [...] Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston." Leaving aside the general anti-Semitic tone of the slur, this sort of disinformation leads one to wonder how much else on their blog is false-- including which groups they are allied with. Does the Green party really want to be identified with people who abuse survivors of genocide? I suspect not-- but BAZA clearly wants to identify with the Green Party.

Needless to say, the six survivors on stage were unfazed, they had suffered and survived far worse than crypto-fascists posing as hippies, shouting slogans like "from Kabul to Jenin, victory to the mujahideen" and "From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free!"

BAZA protesting the Dream for Darfur rally on October 7, 2007. Note the anti-Semitic cartoon claiming Israel engineered the attacks on the World Trade Center.

At one point I noticed a young man standing to the right of the BAZA activists with a sign that read "<--- I'M w/ STUPID" and later a young woman walk up to them with a sign that read "Zionism is not murder." After signing a petition to the Chinese government and having my photo taken I approached the young woman and told her that the BAZA activists were likely a lost cause for persuasion.

Banner held by BAZA activists supporting the Sudanese government's atrocities in Sudan. Note the horrible grammar and the absurd claim that the United Nations is Zionist-- which it is only in the sense that it established a Jewish homeland in 1948.

One of the BAZA activists, a rotund bespectacled man with a sign reading "DIVEST FROM ISRAEL NOT SUDAN" yelled at me, "Stop denying the Zionist genocide!"

I responded with, "What Zionist genocide?"

"The one against the Palestinians!"

"For something to be a genocide, a people must be decimated. Where are the corpses?"

I started loudly talking to the young woman so that the BAZA activist could hear us, "Genocide is a clearly defined crime under international law and so there needs to be evidence before charges are brought."

The woman smiled and asked rhetorically "Oh, you mean that 'Genocide' is a word with an actual definition?"

"Yes!" so I turned to the BAZA activist, "So what evidence have you? Did you know that the GDP of the West Bank has increased since the building of the West Bank Wall? Did you listen to the speakers? Did it sound like their annual income increased while they were suffering?"

The BAZA people shut their traps, and I noted to my new friend, "These people live in an alternate reality where facts are trifles."

More seriously: falsely charging genocide is almost as trivializing of the crime as genocide denial and it abuses real victims of genocide. The BAZA activists could not accuse Israel of wrong-doing without compulsively attempting to denigrate every survivor who stepped to the podium, whether he or she was a European, an Asian, or an African, whether he or she was a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or an Animist

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont: The End?

Frequent readers of this blog will have noticed the attention I have been giving to a controversy in Burlington, Vermont regarding the exhibition of Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories, mural sized collage of painting and text by Bread and Puppet Theater founder, Peter Schumann. My involvement with the story began with my writing an account of my own break with Bread and Puppet over the exhibition of just that particular work.

The story, at least in Burlington, seems to have drawn itself to a close though there are a few developments that I feel the need to comment upon.

Sally Pollak, in an article in the Burlington Free Press provided both an account of how the piece had come to be exhibited and of the fallout in Burlington. The exhibition was brokered by Marc Estrin (whose defense of the exhibition as "appropriate" I responded to here) working with Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, a group that hosts anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial material on their website.

I have, like both Chasan and Kadour already noted the anti-Israeli and Holocaust denial material on the VTJP website, to which Bob Greene, a spokesperson for representatives VTJP has stated to Ken Picard in Seven Days:

“We’ve been called a thinly disguised hate group and anti-Semites, despite the fact that a quarter of our regularly attending members are Jewish, including one who escaped Hitler, [....] These are dangerous, ugly libels. If we were a group that had money or made money, we’d sue these motherfuckers.”

Greene and VTJP can deny that they advocate antisemitism or Holocaust denial all they wish, but as Chasan, Kadour, and I have all pointed out, a simple visit to their website contradicts such denials. A libel is only a libel if it has no basis in fact. Labeling me a "motherfucker," as Greene has done, does not change that.

While the September 19 Seven Days piece by Ken Picard, framed the story as one between political art and censorship (despite the fact that many of the most vocal critics of the exhibit, Rabbi Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour, and I never called for censorship) Pollak's piece was far more nuanced, identifying the problem as the fact that a group with no connection to the arts community, sponsoring an exhibition for political purposes, to quote Yoram Samets in the Pollak article:

"It is our understanding that the Art Hop is an open community opportunity for artists to display their work and for the community to get involved, [...] In this case, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel hijacked the venue for their political agenda. What we have here for the first time is the Art Hop being used by a political organization to further their point of view."

However, despite this, rather than discuss ways to prevent Art Hop from being hijacked in the future by a political organization, State Senator Hinda Miller, as reported Picard, has assembled a coalition to "go after" Art Hop's funding (the Pollak piece describes it as a petition "to overhaul policies and procedures at the annual arts celebration.") The artists, including those highly critical of Schumann's work have reason for concern: art festivals, like the larger Open Studios weekends we have in the Boston metropolitan area thrive on free expression-- and indeed, a review process unless highly streamlined, is cost prohibitive due to need for staffing. The fear that any potentially controversial artwork could be dropped from Art Hop is a real one that must be addressed. At the same time, statements by Carlos Hasse, Executive Director of the South End Arts and Business Association, which sponsors Art Hop are clear that there is a willingness to reevaluate its processes and listen to community concerns. The question is: can this be done without endangering artistic freedom in Burlington, Vermont?

If we value freedom of speech, we must oppose censorship, but rather than grit our teeth when ideas with which we disagree are given voice, we should instead explain why those ideas are wrong and why ours are better. This is the practice, not of censorship, but of following bad speech with good, and this is what I have attempted to do in my own critique of Schumann's work and of his apologists.

That said, my critique of press coverage of this event is over the most central issue: what is the truth-value of the art in question? Journalism, which by nature, reports on current events, is often at a failure to account for historical context. Both Picard and Pollak do a good job of identifying the participants in the controversy and what they have to say about one another's positions, but not about the truthfulness of the claims. After all, is not the value of political art the ability to tell truth to power?

Schumann and VTJP have chosen to confuse issues by injecting false analogies with the Holocaust into any discussion of the
Arab-Israeli conflict shows that they lack the moral seriousness to discuss the facts of the conflict, the causes, their history, and any possible solutions in an honest and thoughtful manner-- they simply have no regard for historical truth. The reports of the September 8th presentation make an unambiguous case that civil discussion has broken down, and while there are guilty parties of varying political affiliations, the fault originates with those who inject divisiveness and dishonesty when there should be truthful, reasoned, dialogue. Ugly statements breed ugly statements.

Schumann chose to juxtapose the Warsaw Ghetto with the West Bank Wall in a single piece of art (note that this was not a decision made by the Palestinian artists with whom he worked in Beit Sahour) and it seems to be understood by both his supporters and his critics (nearly everyone except for him) as a statement of near equivalence. The system of ghettos Germany established in the General Government of Poland killed five- to six-hundred-thousand Jews through engineered concentration, overcrowding and famine over a period of two years. A statement of equivalence is either to falsely charge Israel with genocide in the West Bank (where is the evidence?) or to claim that the Warsaw Ghetto was merely a place of high unemployment and humiliating checkpoints (as Schumann described the West Bank in his February presentation at the Boston Center for the Arts.) The Warsaw Ghetto killed over one-hundred thousand, the West Bank Wall, despite some of its worst effects, has prevented terrorist attacks on Israel, eliminated the need for IDF reprisals-- it has saved lives, both Israeli and Palestinian and permitted rebuilding in Palestinian communities-- but neither Schumann nor VTJP are concerned about that.

In the meantime I should note that Pollak did not repeat Picard's erroneous report that Schumann's family were refugees from the Nazis. I have mentioned this issue with Picard via email, and as Picard did not state he was in error when I brought it to his attention, I have to assume that this was an instance of Schumann misrepresenting himself in order to deflect criticism.