Monday, October 29, 2012

Review of "Voltaire & Frederick"

Meanwhile, over at The Arts Fuse as a follow-up to my discussion with Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and Annette Klein of the Goethe-Institut Boston and artist-in-residence, Guy Ben-Aharon about German Stage, the Goethe-Institut's new initiative to bring German theatre to Boston audiences, I review a reading of Gericke-Schönhagen's play Voltaire & Frederick: A Life in Letters.

The reading, which is directed by Ben-Aharon and features Thomas Derrah as Voltaire and John Kuntz as Frederick II of Prussia, is touring both in New England and Canada.

[T]he letters frequently touch on issues as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century: Voltaire’s objections to the repeated attempts of theologians to use state power to limit freedom of thought and expression echo powerfully in an era when creationists are attempting to ban the teaching of evolution or when Salman Rushdie lives under a fatwa for writing a novel. Voltaire’s arrest at the hands of Frederick’s government illustrates the degree in which leaders are imprisoned by the public roles they play. Frederick’s meditatations on the gap between his ideal of how the world should be and his responsibility to face the world as it is revealed an irony that Voltaire must have appreciated: the king had a strong distaste for the wars he was so good at winning.

There is also a surprisingly lively discussion in the comments section between Gericke-Schönhagen and my editor at The Arts Fuse, Bill Marx.

Nothing But Trouble: Amanda Palmer and the Gift Economy

Over in my column at the Clyde Fitch Report, my piece on the recent Amanda Palmer controversy has reportedly set a record for the most widely read article since the website's relaunch this past summer.

For those of you who are unfamiliar: Amanda Palmer is the musician, songwriter, and performance artist who used to front the Boston-based punk-cabaret, duo The Dresden Dolls. After breaking with her record label over reasons that I don't cover in the article, she decided self-produce, mobilizing her fan-base to crowd-fund her new album, tour and other related projects to the tune of US$1,192,793 (she had only asked for $100,000.)

Though the amount was itself record breaking, the fundraising scheme is not what was at the center of the controversy, websites like Kickstarter have become a means by which arts patronage has been democratized, and simply fulfills the promise that the internet has offered in bridging the gap between the working artist and his or her fans and customers.

What was controversial was Palmer's (since rescinded) request that while on tour with her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, musicians in selected cities should play in her string and horn sections with only beer, high-fives, hugs, and swag as payment. Depending on to whom she was addressing, she either claimed that this was an experiment, something she was doing for her fans, part of her determining her own way of conducting her business, or simply that she could not afford to pay musicians.

Ultimately, the position one takes on this controversy depends on where one draws the line between the gift-economy and the market economy and whether or not you believe the line needs to be redrawn when one individual has the sort of star power to be simply handed $1.2 million by her fans:

The upshot is that musicians were unpaid when it was convenient and paid when it was seen as necessary, also claiming that when musicians were not being paid, that they were happy with the situation. She further responded to her critics by noting the times she had played for free, or had famous musicians sit in with her and concluding that “YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME” with the implication that there was an equal playing field between an artist who is capable of raising over a million dollars from enthusiastic fans and one who may very well be struggling to make ends meet. The underlying argument was that the market (that is the employer, that is Amanda Palmer) should set the wages and working conditions and everyone should be happy for the opportunity to play with Amanda Palmer no matter their pay-scale. Shockingly, it is the same argument that free-market libertarians make against labor unions and health and safety regulations. It was also quite at odds with her decision to perform Leon Rosselon’s song The World Turned Upside Down at an October 6, 2011, Occupy Boston event.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to know Palmer well, but I traveled in some of the same circles for many years, and even performed in a few of her projects.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In The Arts Fuse: A Conversation on German Theatre in Boston

In The Arts Fuse, I have a discussion with theatre director Guy Ben-Aharon, and Goethe-Institut Boston Director Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and Program Curator Annette Klein about their new project, German Stage, a series presenting contemporary German plays to Boston audiences. The program runs in parallel to Ben-Aharon's other series, Israeli Stage, which similarly presents work by Israeli playwrights.

German Stage makes its premiere on October 15th with Voltaire and Frederick: A Life In Letters which is based upon the correspondence between Voltaire and Frederick II of Prussia and was conceived by Gericke-Schönhagen.

Amongst the topics we discuss are the differences between German and American theatre:

Ben-Aharon: Though American playwrights are not well-paid, their work is looked at with great respect by American theatres and directors. One could say American theatre is a playwright’s medium; their dialogue is never changed without permission, and the chronology of a play is something one would never tamper with, unless in a workshop context with the playwright in the room. German directors seem to have a greater ‘power’ than the power of their American counterparts: they are freer to explore and re-explore a play’s theme or story by changing its course, i.e. German directors will take a script and direct the scenes in a different order than what was originally written. This is something American directors would never imagine doing.

As well as the relevance of Voltaire and Frederick II in the 21st century (particularly on Boston stages which last year saw the acclaimed Mary Zimmerman helmed production of Candide at the Huntington as well as the superficial name dropping of David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette at American Repertory Theatre:)

Gericke-Schönhagen: The questions raised by the Enlightenment are more relevant today than ever before. They have shifted from a European level to a global level. If you read how Frederick and Voltaire discussed questions of religion, superstition, so-called blasphemy and persecution from their very first letter on, when Frederick was 24 and Voltaire was 42, you feel as if it was today and you are reading a discussion in The New York Times. Frederic hated the superstitious European monarchs of his time, who often were intellectually uneducated and thus overly influenced by intellectually superior, power-driven advisers from the churches. Frederick was not a democrat, but he was an intellectual, highly educated, radically secular yet tolerant of religious belief.

The conversation continues in The Arts Fuse!

Monday, October 8, 2012

October 13: Albanian Writers Day in Worcester, MA

Satuday, October 13th: My friend Chad Parenteau and I will be reading from Tingujt e erës: Lirikë e re Amerikane or Sounds of Wind: New American Lyrics as part of Albanian Writer's Day at the Worcester Public Library.

Tingujt e erës is a bilingual anthology of American poets both in English and translated into Albanian by Lediana Stillo and edited by Abdyl Kadolli, and published by the Writers Union of Kosova (Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve e Kosovës.)

It was due to the publication of this book that I travelled to Kosovo this past June as a guest of the Writers Union. Some of my adventures were recounted here.

I should also note that outside of a few open mic appearances, this will be the first time I will have given a poetry reading in North America in several years.

Albanian Writers Day is presented by the Bleta Association and will run from 11am to 3pm. The event  is free and open to the public.

The Worcester Public Library is located at 3 Salem Square, Worcester MA 01608

Monday, October 1, 2012

Arts Fuse Review: Les 7 Doigts de la Main's "Séquence 8"

This past weekend The Arts Fuse ran my review of Montréal-based nouveau cirque troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main's Séquence 8:

The agility of Les 7 Doigts de la Main’s acrobats may be the spectacle that draws audiences in to see Séquence 8, but it’s their decision to treat acrobatics and other types of circus virtuosity as a form of acting that offers a new, intimate direction for the nouveau cirque genre.

Séquence 8 runs through to October 7th at ArtsEmerson.

Arts Fuse Interview: Lenelle Moïse's "Expatriate"

"Rebel" from Lenelle Moise on Vimeo.

While not updating this blog, I also managed to have an email conversation with Lenelle Moïse, whose show, Expatriate is coming to Boston this weekend:

AF: Though American expats can be found all over the world, the Parisian expatriate experience is as much part of American mythology as venturing into the frontier. Traveling to Europe plays a particularly significant role in African-American cultural history when one considers the number of Black artists and intellectuals (many of whom were also queer) who moved to Paris to escape the tyranny of pre-civil Rights America. What’s the symbolic role of Paris today?

Moïse: A lot of people associate French culture with pleasure and protest. From escargot to Picasso to the Marquis de Sade to Bastille Day, the French maintain a global reputation for being revolutionary, stylish, occasionally scandalous, and often cool. I think Black American artists—some of them women, some of them queer—share this reputation. Unfortunately, post-civil rights America still marginalizes creative professionals, women, LGBT folks, and people of color. Even President Obama has to deal with people not thinking he’s American enough because he’s of African descent. I wonder if Black expatriates can only feel American when they’re in exile? James Baldwin and Nina Simone had to relocate to France to feel respected as artists. Much of their work focused on American identity politics, but we remember it because it was skillful and beautiful. The French “get” beauty.

I also spoke to Abe Rybeck, founder the The Theater Offensive, a Boston based theatre company whose work focuses on LGBT themes:

AF: You started TTO in 1989, making it roughly contemporary with political movements like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and Queer Nation. This means that for over two decades, as well as producing its own work, TTO has also been a presenting organization for queer artists from all over the nation and world. What changes have you seen in the world of queer theater?

Rybeck: Yeah, we grew out of a queer, guerrilla street theater troupe called United Fruit Company that started doing AIDS and liberation-themed activism in 1985. So we actually predated ACT UP by a couple years [ACT UP was founded in 1987]. One of the enormous changes I’ve seen is that in big city theater scenes, queer work isn’t so scarce anymore, which is great. These days, no major theater company in a city like Boston would program its season without discussing what might be of interest to gay men. That puts many gay theater groups around the country in a real competitive tough spot.

On the other, sadder hand, many folks in our community—especially women and people of color—still don’t feel seen or understood or represented by those plays.

You can read the rest of these interviews on The Arts Fuse!

Arts Fuse Review: A.B. Yehoshua's "Hand in Hand Together"

Sorry for the long silence on the blog. As you will see from the next couple of posts, I have been writing, just not here.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of Israeli playwright A.B. Yehoshua's Hand in Hand Together. The play was presented as a reading by Israeli Stage, whose founder and artistic director, Guy Ben-Aharon directed and provided the translation. The play told the tale of a series of 1934 meetings between Labor Zionist (and later Israeli Prime Minister) David Ben-Gurion and Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

While some plays, when translated, become part of the canon of world drama. The experience of this play caused me to question the limits of theatre in translation, especially political theatre when transported from its native environment:

[...] the didactic nature of Hand in Hand Together is a potential obstacle towards a successful staging for a non-Israeli audience. It no doubt plays well when performed in the Knesset, where many elected officials see either one of the protagonist’s as their ideological forebears, or for an audience that is steeped in Israeli history. But to an American audience the distinctions between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky may come off as a purely academic exercise.

This disconnect leads to an important question raised by theater in translation: how should one stage a play outside its home country? Will an American audience be riveted by two men debating about early twentieth-century Zionism? Should it be staged with a nod towards naturalism, or given the importance of its ideological and historical discussions, would the story be best brought to the stage with theatrical effects and puppets used in a Brechtian manner? Perhaps an explanatory dumb show as the heroes debate? Would that self-conscious approach improve the storytelling, or would it be seen as mocking the central conflict? When a play is performed outside of its native country, should the mode of theatrical presentation become another part of the translation?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

September 17: The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston Meets the Theater Commons

On Monday, September 17th, the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston meets with the Center for the Theatre Commons at Emerson College to learn about the projects being developed at the Commons for use by the new play sector.

Earlier this year, after it was announced that the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage was splitting into two branches, and one of those branches, The Center for the Theater Commons, was taking root at ArtsEmerson, I speculated as to what that could mean for the Boston theatre scene. It certainly occurred to me that the local scene needed to become more familiar with the projects being developed at the Commons, even if the Commons' mission covers new play development nationwide.

The philosophy behind the Commons is a practical one: given that there is an abundance of creativity in the new play sector and the unequal distribution of opportunities preventing that abundance from reaching audiences, how does one increase those opportunities. The mission of the branch of the AVNPI that has become the Commons has been the study of this bottleneck and isolated efforts to circumvent this bottleneck so to create both  the tools and shared knowledge base that allow both problems and solutions to be studied in greater detail (see my notes on an early iteration New Play Map) as well as those that assist those working in the new play sector in the effort to widen that bottleneck and placing those tools and knowledge in "the commons" that can be accessed by anyone much like the books at the public library. Other projects have included the online journal HowlRound and #NewPlayTV as well as the popularization of the #newplay hashtag.

As Commons founder David Dower, director Polly K. Carl, and associate directors Jamie Gahlon and Vijay Matthew made their rounds in Boston discussing the philosophy of the commons, I made face-to-face contact and in my capacity as a member of the Small Theatre Alliance's events committee suggested a meetup between the commons and Alliance members involved in the new play sector. This meeting will focus on the tools being developed as part of the commons and getting them into the hands of playwrights, dramaturgs, literary managers, artistic directors and all those with a hand in developing new plays.

The event will run from 7pm to 9pm at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre in the Paramount Center at 559 Washington Street in Boston.

Facebook users may RSVP here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Bread & Puppet Theater's Peter Schumann

Left: 1934 issue of Die Brennessel portrays a Jewish press magnate subverting Germany with a phallic tube of lies
Right: Bread & Puppet iconic avatar of the evils of modernity, Uncle Fatso, with phallic cigar.

In the latest installment of my "Nothing But Trouble" column at the Clyde Fitch Report, I discuss the politics of Bread & Puppet Theater founder, Peter Schumann on the occasion of his receiving Goddard College's Second Annual Presidential Award for Activism. Goddard President Barbara Vacarr, in her speech introducing Schumann, noted:

[...J]ust as individuals do, human societies tend to see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy narratives that, if not challenged, lead to destruction[...]

[...V]isionary artists like Peter Schumann are our sharpest eyes, our keenest ears, our most adept linguists as they see that which has been made invisible or unwelcome, they hear the voices missing from our dominant narratives and they speak in languages that pierce unconsciousness and translate slick sound bites into nuanced and deeper understandings of our world.

Of course, the visionary artist is another myth, and when we start examining the myth of Peter Schumann, we find something that should at least give us pause:

Schumann speaks frequently of being born in 1934 in a region called Silesia, but he neglects to mention that it was part of the Third Reich and that his hometown of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) was a major base of support of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Indeed, the local German population provided a fertile ground for Naziism to take root: in the 1920s, mob violence had already forced much of the city’s Jewish and Polish populations to leave, and, over the course of Schumann’s childhood, the city was rendered Judenfrei through deportations. Breslau was a city surrounded by a network of concentration camps and slave labor camps providing commercial products for the city. Despite the political nature of his art, Schumann never addresses the fact that for the first 11 years of his life, he was a child of Nazi Germany. He never discusses whether or not his parents were party members, whether or not he was a member of the Deutsches Jungvolk (the Hitler Youth subdivision for boys aged 10-14), or how these experiences influenced him. Popular book-length studies of Schumann and Bread & Puppet (like George Dennison’s An Existing Better World: Notes On The Bread & Puppet Theater and Marc Estrin’s essays for Rehearsing with Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater) make no mention of Schumann’s life in Nazi-era Silesia.

The question I have been asking since 2007 since I stopped performing with Bread & Puppet has been how much of Schumann's politics are influenced by his childhood in Nazi Germany?

Read the rest in The Clyde Fitch Report!

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Shylock Sings The Blues" Review and Interview

In The Arts Fuse, I review Shylock Sings the Blues a new musical based on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with lyrics by David Sokol, music by Dennis Willmott, and recorded by the Venetians.

...It is only natural that some artists would draw on the cultural mystique of The Merchant of Venice as source material for their own work. Burlington, Vermont-based lyricist and illustrator David Sokol (who did all the album art) and composer Dennis Willmott replace Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and prose with blues, rock, and country songs in a concept-album entitled Shylock Sings the Blues. The story has been shifted from the Venetian Republic of the sixteenth century to 1950s Venice, New Jersey...

I also interview David Sokol (who as well as being a lyricist, is an illustrator who provided the cover art):

Sokol: I chose the blues number one because I am most familiar with it. Also the blues is the music of an oppressed people. I would love the stage presentation of Shylock Sings the Blues to have a black Shylock. I have just been turned down by a local radio station who refuses to play any songs from the album because “it is too dark! “How can blues be “too dark”? And there is humor in the musical—Jessica can be comedic and Launcelot is the truth telling fool.

The depth of anti-Semitism is intertwined with the darkest of human misery—and the Devil represents the latter. The fundamental basis of anti-Semitism is the belief that Jews don’t just act evil but that they embody evil itself. Possibly the lineage of European theater, morality plays, etc. and their depiction and teaching of good and bad through the use of devils and angels contributed to the Devil’s visits to the play. Also, in my quest to be entertaining and not pedantic, the Devil is a universal and simple dramatic tool.

Read more in The Arts Fuse!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Theatre Miscommunications Group?

Graphic by Jai Sen, for the Clyde Fitch Report

In my The Clyde Fitch Report column "Nothing But Trouble" I follow up my commentary on the volunteer situation at last month's Theatre Communications Group conference in Boston. The piece summarizes parts 1 and 2 of my #OccupyTCG series that ran earlier this month before moving on TCG's official (and unofficial) reactions.

Nothing But Trouble: Theatre Miscommunications Group?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Somerville Scout: An American Poet in Kosovo

Dave Brinks, Lediana Stillo, and yours truly at the League of Prizren Museum, in Prizren, Kosovo. Photograph by Abdyl Kadolli.

Sometimes, when not engaged in provocative reporting from the Theatre Communications Group, or analyzing efforts to disrupt a Shakespeare festival for political purposes and otherwise writing the story, I'm the subject of the story.

Eli Jace of the Somerville Scout interviews me regarding my recent trip to Kosovo as a guest of the Writers Union of Kosova at their Drini Poetik International Festival of Poetry to commemorate the publication of Tingujt e erës: Lirikë e re Amerikane (Sounds of Wind: New American Lyrics.

Ian Thal: An American Poet in Kosovo

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Philistinism in the UK, Part II

Over at the Clyde Fitch Report, part II of my post-mortem on the on the attempt of British anti-Israeli activists to prevent the Israeli State Theatre, Habima, from performing at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London as part of the 37 play Globe to Globe Festival:

Given the Globe’s steadfastness that that it would not bow to any cultural boycott, the March 29th letter was doomed to have little effect; only gaining headlines due to the celebrity status of many of the signatories: film star Emma Thompson’s name appeared in much of the subsequent news coverage, as did that of Mark Rylance, who was former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. It was little surprise to see the name of playwright Caryl Churchill, whose Seven Jewish Children has been widely criticized as anti-Semitic by such figures as Booker Award winning novelist, Howard Jacobson, attorney and literary scholar Anthony Julius and others due to its invocation of the blood libel, gross distortion of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and crude ethnic stereotypes of Jews. (Notably, The Guardian, which makes Seven Jewish Children available on its website has published numerous apologiae effectively making the paper the play’s corporate sponsor.)

With the March 29th letter, the story had gone from activists attempting to silence artists not because of the content of the work but for their identity, to that of artists attempting to silence other artists due to their identity: a particularly dangerous position for artists to take. Once an artist advocates the boycotting of another artist’s work because of their nation of origin or for taking a gig in a specific theatre, they have both given sanction to hooliganism seen on May 28th and 29th and sanction similar retaliation towards their own work.

Read more at the Clyde Fitch Report!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Philistinism in the UK, Part I

Photograph by Richard Millet. Used with permission.

I have a new column at the newly relaunched Clyde Fitch Report entitled "Nothing But Trouble". The CFR bills itself as "the nexus of arts and politics" and "Nothing But Trouble" will be focussing on just that nexus.

My column will open with a two-part series entitled "Philistinism in the UK" which is a follow-up and expansion upon an earlier piece, "Artistic Boycotts in the UK" and focusses on the attempt of British anti-Israeli activists to prevent the Israeli State Theatre, Habima, from performing at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London as part of the 37 play Globe to Globe Festival:
Outside the theatre, one anti-Israel protestor was photographed wearing what any commedia dell’arte enthusiast might see as a Pantalone mask but to most would be seen as the stereotype of the grotesquely long-nosed Jew; somehow it seems unlikely that he was making commentary on Shakespeare’s indebtedness to the Italian comedy.

Though the most vocal protestors were kept out, Habima’s performances were repeatedly disrupted by anti-Israeli activists, who were photographed waving Palestinian flags, and unfurling banners with anti-Israeli slogans, only to be escorted out by security. Reports describe a group standing silently with their mouths covered by either tape or adhesive bandages apparently in protest of the “censorship” of the more disruptive activists. Several sources that during the trial scene in Act IV, a protester shouted “hath not a Palestinian eyes?” echoing signs seen outside the theatre as well as demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the original text (Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech is from Act III, Scene 3.)

Read more at the The Clyde Fitch Report!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

#OccupyTCG or How I Finally Discovered the Utility of Twitter, Part 2

[Part of a short series that will likely be expanded upon in The Clyde Fitch Report]

Read Part 1.

On Friday, June 22nd, I had dinner with John Geoffrion, president of the Small Theatre Alliance and member of the Boston Host Committee for the TCG conference before we caught a workshop presentation of a new work by Mike Daisey. He had been drafting a letter to the TCG staff to voice his displeasure at the treatment of volunteers at the conference and the embarrassing position it had placed him in as a member of the Volunteer Sub-Committee.

All throughout the conference, TCG staff had been bragging during the plenary sessions that the #tcg12 hashtag was one of the trending topics on twitter. So on the morning of June 23rd, despite my frequently stated distaste for the medium, I too, turned to twitter, first tweeting:

Last night the volunteers were allowed to approach the bar like real adults; Maybe today they will be allowed to speak. #tcg12 #nethtr

I followed with a new hashtag #OccupyTCG. Note that the following is not a complete transcript:

#tcg12 volunteers promised full participation in return for work-hours then ordered not to speak or ask questions. #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

#tcg12 Are volunteers also barred from tweeting about theatre? #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

#tcg12 Model the Movement: if you don't pony up $300 you can't possibly have anything relevant to say about theatre. #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

Model the Movement: Low income theatre artists should be seen (volunteering) and not heard at #tcg12 #OccupyTCG #NEthtr

Ironically, I began tweeting #OccupyTCG during a plenary session entitled "Ensuring the Sustainability of Our Field" that largely addressed topics of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender in American theatre with only lip service to issues of class.

Eventually, after others began to retweeted my initial posts and started asking questions, I received a series of tweets from August Shulenburg playwright, actor, and Associate Director of Communications for TCG:

@IanThal Worried there's been a miscommunication re: volunteer participation at #TCG12. Email me at w/what happened

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal (1/3) I've looked more into this & I'm hearing there was some confusion during volunteer meeting... #TCG12

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal (2/3) ...but the volunteer packet should state "If you're not assigned a role, you're welcome..." _#TCG12

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal (3/3) attend another session." It asks volunteers 2 prioritize care of attendees,but no barr. #TCG12

To which I responded:

@GusSchulenburg I have volunteer recruitment emails going back to April from the host committee for #tcg12 #OccupyTCG

@GusSchulenburg @madbusch @JohnGeoffrion That's not in the packet and email that #tcg12 volunteers received. #OccupyTCG


@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @IanThal Now I'm being told something different about the packets. REALLY sorry about this. Will have answers soon

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion Again, my apologies. I now have my hands on full packet & @IanThal is right Clearly, this is an issue &... _#TCG12

@madbusch @JohnGeoffrion @ianthal ...I'll look more into the cause of comm. breakdown. Very sorry not in time to make a difference #TCG12

There appeared to be multiple layers of miscommunication: not only had TCG not communicated to the Host Committee the status of volunteers until a day or two before the conference, but Schulenburg, as the tweets reveal, had somehow been issued a completely different volunteer policy than what was presented in the volunteer guide and had been defended by TCG staff at the June 20th orientation..

As of this writing August Schulenburg, to his credit, is the only TCG staff member to either respond to the concerns raised in my tweets or reply to my emails.

[To Be Continued...]

Monday, July 2, 2012

#OccupyTCG or How I Finally Discovered the Utility of Twitter, Part 1

[Part of a short series that will likely be expanded upon in The Clyde Fitch Report]

There was much excitement last year when it was announced that the annual conference of the Theatre Communications Group, New York-based publisher of American Theatre magazine, theatrical books, as well as an industry-wide association for American theatre, announced that the 2012 TCG National Conference would take place in Boston. Locally it was seen as a national acknowledgement that Boston had "arrived" as a theatrical community. Much was afoot in the Boston area: There had been recent leadership changes at both American Repertory Theater and The Huntington Theatre, ArtsEmerson had opened shop under the leadership of Bob Orchard and had quickly established itself as a major presenting institution for international work. Just as importantly, the "fringe" scene (much of which represented by the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston) has blossomed in recent years, becoming so essential that SourceStage, the older, more established Boston theatre-service organization had been coordinating activities with the Small Theatre Alliance. Both organizations have in turn been discussing a possible merger.

The host committee, made up of a wide swath of people from Boston's theatre community was charged with laying the groundwork for the conference. One initiative the host committee took was to rebrand the conference as a New England conference, sponsoring town meetings in the months prior to the conference not just in Boston and Cambridge, but in Worchester, Pittsfield, Portland, Maine, and Providence, Rhode Island and so the #BOSthtr hashtag that StageSource had previously promoted for use in twitter was joined by #NEthtr. The host committee, in short, saw its mission not just as welcoming the out-of-town guests were treated with hospitality but to ensure that New England's theatrical communities were also well represented.

The host committee was also responsible for recruiting volunteers to help run the conference. Due to the steepness of the registration fees (the "early bird rate" for independent artists nominated by member organizations was $280 but some attendees or their sponsoring institutions were paying as much as $725 to attend) volunteering several hours to help run the conference seemed like a reasonable way for a low-to-moderate income artist to get into an important industry conference.

For the record I worked six hours as a volunteer for the conference—which not including the receptions, amounts to roughly a third of my time at the conference. It was simple work: manning tables, moving chairs, being on hand to act as a gopher but absolutely necessary for a conference with roughly a thousand attendees.

There had already been some concern about how well the interests of small and fringe theatre companies would be represented at TCG. TCG groups its member theatres by budget group and theatre companies with annual budgets of under half-a-million dollars are all classified together. Consequently, one question that was part of the scuttlebutt amongst artists affiliated with the Small Theatre Alliance was "how aware or interested was TCG in the challenges faced by theatre companies who operate on shoe-string budgets?" In fact, the only presentation I caught (in part because I was assigned to work on it as part of my volunteer hours) that addressed small theatres was a "breakout session" that addressed Steppenwolf Theatre's Garage Rep in which small companies from Chicago's storefront theatre scene are sponsored by the larger company.

However, the real disconnect came when on June 19th, volunteers were sent an email with guidelines that included one directive that would prove to be controversial:

In all sessions, be they breakouts or plenary, workshops or roundtables, you are there to observe and help, not to participate. TCG staff and volunteers must refrain from participating [TCG's emphasis] in conversations or Q&A rounds in all conference sessions.

The following day, during a volunteer orientation, a volunteer asked for a clarification: was this only for sessions where the volunteer was working in a support capacity or was this an across the board rule for all sessions. Devon Berkshire (Conference Manager) and Dafina McMillan (Director of Communications), who were representing TCG at the orientation meeting clarified that it was be an across the board policy, as volunteers are present as an extension of TCG staff and thus are not to participate.

At the end of the meeting members of the Host Committee's volunteer sub-committee voiced muted displeasure at the policy as they had been of the understanding that volunteers would be full participants. One volunteer confided in me that he was going to reconsider his participation in light of this policy.

Consequently, at Wednesday night's welcome party, which had initially been promoted to local theatre people as "your party" left the volunteers in attendance uncertain as to whether they were really invited (the volunteer packet also stipulated that volunteers were not to partake in any of the catering which that evening amounted to chips and salsa.) The volunteers present were also not issued drink tickets. About halfway through the party, representatives from MailChimp an email newsletter design and consulting firm that was present for the conference decided to donate drink tickets to the volunteers.

At the following evening's reception at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama, volunteers were again not allowed to partake in the catering and were denied drink tickets. If there had been some concern for volunteers over indulging in alcohol and not being capable of fulfilling volunteer duties the following day, this same concern was not held for the paying attendees who were issued bracelets with five drink tickets each. Nobody attending an industry conference whose first plenary session is at 9:00a.m. needs to imbibe five drinks over the course of three hours the night before. The bartenders had also apparently been given instructions not to allow attendees to transfer their drink tickets to volunteers. In addition the buffet was only half-eaten by the end of the party which speaks to the lack of scarcity—at least if the volunteers had been permitted to approach the food tables, less food would have gone to waste.

Friday, June 22nd was the busiest day of the conference. Because I had only a week before returned from the Republic of Kosovo where I had been a guest of the Writers Union at the Drini Poetik International Festival of Poetry, I was interested in attending the lunchtime roundtable discussion on international theatre exchanges, yet was neither permitted to share my experiences nor ask if other attendees about their experiences. I was also not permitted to ask a question or speak at the breakout session on "models for supporting and engaging playwrights," despite being a playwright and a member of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston's Events Committee.

The interns and other TCG staff, who seemed to be present at every discussion or presentation I attended created an atmosphere of panopticonism where I was conscious of the fact that my behavior and that of other volunteers might be under surveillance and understandably, the interns had motivation to strictly adhere to and enforce the rules laid down by TCG— perhaps more so than regular staff—after all, they were young, ambitious theatre students hoping to parlay their internship into a career as opposed to staff who already had a career.

Read Part 2.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Boston Herald: Making It Big (Top)

I may be a globe-trotting international poet but one of the things I am most proud of is teaching mime and commedia dell'arte classes to the kids who come each summer to Open Air Circus in Somerville where I live. Jed Gottlieb writes in The Boston Herald:

...Ian Thal has spent seven years teaching students commedia dell’arte, an improvised masked slapstick that originated in Italy during the Renaissance.

“If I do my job well, the kids learn that creativity is a shared enterprise, that wit can be as much in the body as in words,” Thal said. “When they get to that age where they start studying Shakespeare in school, they recognize that the Bard’s roots are as much in broad, over-the-top comedy as in poetry.”

There's still time to register! Classes begin tonight!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tingujt e erës/Sounds of Wind

SoundsofWindCoverI recently travelled to Prizren in the Republic of Kosova as a guest of the Writers Union of Kosova (Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve e Kosovës) at their Drini Poetik international poetry festival to celebrate the publication of
Tingujt e erës:Lirikë e re Amerikane or Sounds of Wind: New American Lyrics, a bilingual anthology of contemporary American poetry collected and translated into Albanian by Lediana Stillo an Albanian poet and playwright who lives in the United States, edited by Abdyl Kadolli, with cover art by Shpend Bengu, and layout by Tafil Duraku.

Featured poets include Craig Arnold, Dave Brinks, Megan Burns, Maggie Cleveland, Timothy Donnelly, Stuart Greenhouse, Anatoly Molotkov, Chad Parenteau, John Sibley Williams and myself.

I travelled to Prizren with Dave Brinks and Lediana Stillo, enjoyed the festival and spent the week learning about Kosova. I hope to be sharing with you stories of my adventures abroad in the near future.

My understanding is that the collection will be used as a textbook in teaching the translation of literary English into Albanian.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Leaving For Prizren

POSTERI - Drini Poetik - 100 cope
I am soon to depart for Kosovo to attend the Drini Poetik International Festival of Poetry in Prizren, Kosovo on June 9th & 10th as a guest of the Lidhja e Shrimtarëve e Kosovës (Writers Union* of Kosova.)

The occasion of my attendance will be the publication of Tingujt e ëres: Lirikë e re amerikane (Sound of Winds: New American Lyrics) an anthology of American poetry collected and translated into Albanian by Lediana Stillo and published by the LShK. Several of my poems were included as were poems by New Orleans poet, Dave Brinks, who will also be attending.

France will be represented by Yvan Tetelbom.

I'm very excited.

* Depending on the circumstances, the Albanian word "lidhja" is translated into English as "League," "Association," or "Union." The program names the LShK as a "Union" though some of my earlier correspondence used the term "League" in English.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sunday, June 3rd: Teatro Delle Maschere in Somerville

Just in case you have to miss Teatro delle Maschere's performance at the Cambridge River Festival on Saturday, there is still a another chance to see us this weekend as we will be performing at the SomerStreets Carnaval in East Somerville on Louie's Stage by Foss Park at 3:15pm (Map)

As mentioned previously: we will be performing with new masks designed and sculpted by Eric Bornstein of Behind the Mask Studio & Theatre!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Troupe's New Masks: Behind the Mask Studio

One of the benefits of Teatro delle Maschere's relationship with Behind the Mask Studio & Theatre is that master mask maker Eric Bornstein is crafting the troupe's new masks. After using a set of masks I had developed for teaching classes and workshops in performance, we will be premiering Eric's masks at our June 2nd performance at the Cambridge River Festival.

What follows is a preview of the masks as they are in the process of being crafted:

Arlecchino sculpted in clay over a plaster cast of my face.

Columbina sculpted in clay over a plaster cast of Stacey Polishook's face.

Il Dottore sculpted in clay over a plaster cast of James Van Looy's face.

Here is the trio after all three have been sculpted.

This is a cast taken off of a clay mold. It will form the basis of a final mask. In this case, the mask is for Perriot; who, though not traditionally a masked character, is in our case. As with the Dottore, he has been sculpted over a face cast of James Van Looy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Arts Fuse Review: Beau Jest's "Ten Blocks on the Camino Real" By Tennessee Williams

My review of Beau Jest Moving Theatre's production of Tennessee Williams long neglected one-act, Ten Blocks on the Camino Real is online on The Arts Fuse. While I caught it at Charlestown Working Theater where it recently closed, it is opening tonight at Lucid Stage in Portland, Maine.

Ten Blocks on the Camino Real is a largely neglected play in Tennessee Williams’s canon, generally regarded as a one-act first draft of the 1953 full-length Sixteen Blocks on the Camino Real and not as a separate play in its own right. First composed in 1946 while traveling through Mexico and workshopped by Elia Kazan at the Actors’ Studio, the expanded and reworked play made its Broadway premiere in 1953. Sixteen Blocks closed after 60 performances and was seen as a financial and artistic failure. Some argue that the play’s experimental approach, which presaged Williams’s later work, alienated audiences whose expectations had been formed by The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire; Elia Kazan would later say that his naturalistic directorial approach was incompatible with the play as written.

Here is Beau Jest artistic director Davis Robinson speaking about the play:

I should also note that Beau Jest posted a very informative dramaturgical blog on the play entitled "30 Days to TEN BLOCKS".

June 2nd: Teatro delle Maschere at Cambridge River Festival

My commedia dell'arte troupe, Teatro delle Maschere, will be performing at the Cambridge River Festival on Saturday, June 2nd. We will be performing two shows at 3pm and 4:45pm on the INSPIRE Theater Stage on Memorial Drive between JFK and Plympton Streets.

Our sets will include both "The Esteemed Dottore of Bologna Offers His Authoritative, Erudite, and Thoroughly Supercilious Meditation on the Mask" which we previously performed as part of Fort Point Theatre Channel's Excalamation Point! Series and at the Puppet Slam and a commedia dell'arte staging of act III, scene 3 of William Shakespeare's As You Like It which we last performed at last year's Shakespeare Slam.

The cast will include Stacey Polishook, James Van Looy and myself and will feature new masks designed by Eric Bornstein of Behind the Mask Studio & Theatre.

This free event is sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council. The INSPIRE stage is curated by the Central Square Theater.

Facebook users may RSVP here if they like.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Re-Post: Review of "One Man, Two Guvnors" in The Arts Fuse

In light of One Man, Two Guvnors Richard Bean's musical adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters being nominated for seven Tony Awards, my editor at The Arts Fuse Bill Marx has elected to repost my review of the broadcast presentation of the original run at the National Theatre:

English comedy has never shied from its roots in the Italian commedia dell’arte: Shakespeare set most of his comedies in Italy, the Mister Punch who beats the devil, the hangman, and Judy was once a Neapolitan known as Pulcinella, while the popular English form of the Harlequinade is unmistakably a nineteenth-century permutation of commedia. England’s continued preoccupation with class and the long history of southern English cities receiving groups of migrant workers from other parts of Britain, each bringing with them their own distinct dialects and culture, nurture an appetite for commedia-inspired comedy of class and ethnic stereotypes. Consequently, it is natural for playwright Richard Bean to adapt the plot of Carlo Goldoni’s classic The Servant of Two Masters from seventeenth-century Venice to the 1963 Brighton, England of One Man, Two Guvnors[....]

Read more in The Arts Fuse!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cosmic Spelunker Theater Reunites on May 7th at Stone Soup

Cosmic Spelunker Theater, 2002
Cosmic Spelunker Theater, the poetry and mime performance troupe that I co-founded with James Van Looy and William J. "Billy" Barnum back in late 2001 has been back in rehearsals in preparation for another reunion show as part of Stone Soup Poetry's 41st anniversary event at the Out of the Blue Art Gallery on May 7th at 8pm.

We'll be accompanied by bassist Ethan Mackler.

Last time we reunited, some four years ago, I posted a brief history of the Cosmic Spelunkers.

Out Of The Blue Art Gallery
106 Prospect Street
Cambridge MA

Facebook users may RSVP here.

Photograph of the Cosmic Spelunker Theater by Elizabeth Schweber Doles, 2002.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Vicariously Duped About Dresden, Or How Dare I Note That Venerated German American Novelist Kurt Vonnegut May Have Spent His Entire Career Making Erroneous Statements About The Fire Bombing Of Dresden, Germany As Told In YouTube Comments And Blog Posts

Last month, I noted that a 2005 BBC programme memorializing the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II featured an interview with American novelist and humanist Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut had been in Dresden during the bombing as a prisoner of war, and drew on his experiences of the bombing and its aftermath in his famed novel, Slaughterhouse Five. The problem is that in the novel, the interview, as well as in other writings, Vonnegut erroneously states that the death toll of the bombing was 135,000.

135,000 is a piece of disinformation hatched up by German neo-Nazi, Hans Voigt, and disseminated in English by the British Holocaust denier and fraudulent historian, David Irving. Historical consensus has since placed the actual death toll much lower: generally somewhere between 18 and 25 thousand (most estimates I have seen support the lower figure.)

I posted the following comment to the YouTube video:

The figure of 135,00 that Vonnegut cites is derived from the "The Destruction of Dresden" by David Irving, an infamous Nazi-sympathizer and Holocaust denier. He knowingly based his figures on Nazi propaganda. The figures compiled by the city of Dresden at the time resulted in the estimate of 25,000. A more recent study commissioned by the city of Dresden places the death toll at around 18,000.

I certainly do not believe that Kurt Vonnegut used the 135,000 figure out of sympathy with Irving or Irving's politics. Irving's book, The Destruction of Dresden was was simply the most widely available book on the subject at the time that Vonnegut was attempting to make sense of his wartime experiences and incorporate those experiences into his novel. I am more concerned with the fact that since Slaughterhouse Five and Vonnegut's other literary accounts comprise the primary source for most English speakers' knowledge of the Dresden bombing, that he was repeating the 135,000 figure in 2005, long after Irving had been widely discredited, and that the BBC apparently did not fact check that statement in a programme about the bombing.

My comment was met with hostility as I expected it would. As I learnt when I first took Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet fame to task on his misrepresentations of both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found that criticizing venerated figures results in a backlash. What follows are some highlights:

From "vaporcobra" who argued from authority and accused me of being a conspiracy theorist:
You kidding me? Take your conspiracy elsewhere. I didn't mind up until you insulted someone who is obviously a genius and obviously is not manipulated as easily as you infer he is.
Get YOUR facts straight before you insult someone whose work is in the canon.
"masterchiefer123" used some particularly colorful invective:
You're a disgusting brain washed sheep obviously biased its despicable...Trying to make it sound like the allies did no wrong. go learn history, you werent there, kurt vonnegut was...his words or yours? choose him obviously
"aboxandtheghostinit" was particularly inventive:
Published in 2008 you say, Vonnegut died and this program was aired in 2007. I don't disagree with the revised numbers but love how you embrace this study yet Irving is a "Holocaust denier" for questioning the numbers that died in the camps. You sound like a Dresden denier and mass murder-sympathizer to me ;)

"aboxandtheghostinit" actually suggests that accepting the the general consensus of historians who have examined all the evidence about the bombing of Dresden over the unsupported statements of Hans Voigt is on par with denying the Holocaust, the best documented genocide in human history.

However, the most clever response was from "ssJokatu":
The numbers keep on dropping. Does it really matter that much in the end?
Vonnegut was hardly a historian, but a fiction writer. We could argue the factual existence of characters in the end.
I don't deny the overestimation by Nazi propaganda, but in the end, in truth, people died. Jews, Refugees, Soldiers, Children, Japs, Chinese, Nazis, and morals. It's immoral to justify death with death, or justify death with different statistics.
135,000 died in a story with aliens in the end. War is cool..

"135,000 died in a story with aliens in the end." I do not suppose that the BBC fact checked the existence of Tralfamadorians either.

Review: India Jazz Suites

My review of India Jazz Suites: Kathak Meets Tap, the ongoing collaboration between Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith is now online at The Arts Fuse.

Though the idioms of kathak and tap dance have radically different origins on separate continents, both share features that make a meeting between these two intellectually curious virtuosos particularly fruitful: both men are exemplars of traditions known for sophisticated percussive footwork, improvisation, and an intimate relationship with a rich musical tradition that also emphasizes improvisation. Just as tap dance is connected to American jazz, kathak is rooted in the classical Hindustani music of northern India.

Disclosure: I studied kathak, the classical dance of northern India and Pakistan, for a number of years at Chhandika, the Boston-affiliate of Pandit Das' Chhandam school.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

I'm going to Kosovo!

It has been quite some time since I have used this blog to discuss my poetry, but the other day I was officially notified that along with New Orleans poet Dave Brinks, I have been invited by the Writers' League of Kosovo (Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve e Kosovës) to represent the United States at Drini Poetik, an international poetry festival in Prizren, Kosovo on June 9th and 10th.

I do not know the full details yet, but I expect to have much to report after I return.

Special thanks to Lediana Stillo, who translated several of my poems into Albanian and without whom none of this would be possible.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Artistic Boycotts In The UK: Habima at Shakespeare's Globe

In recent months, part of my "beat" as a contributor to The Arts Fuse has been reporting on Israeli Stage, a Boston-based company devoted to presenting Israeli plays to an American audience, writing commentary on the work on Israeli playwrights Savyon Liebrecht and Motti Lerner as well as conducting an interview with Israeli Stage's Producing Artistic Director, Guy Ben-Aharon. Despite the the fact that I am new to the subject, this recent work has placed me in a position where I now have to pay greater attention to new developments.

On Thursday, March 29, 2012, The Guardian published an open letter signed by 37 British artists associated with film and theatre protesting Shakespeare's Globe's decision to invite the Israeli state theatre Habima (who were mentioned in the Ben-Aharon interview) to participate in an international Shakespeare festival in May. The text of the letter is as follows:

We notice with dismay and regret that Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London has invited Israel's National Theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in its Globe to Globe festival this coming May. The general manager of Habima has declared the invitation "an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel". But Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory. Last year, two large Israeli settlements established "halls of culture" and asked Israeli theatre groups to perform there. A number of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part.

Habima, however, accepted the invitation with alacrity, and promised the Israeli minister of culture that it would "deal with any problems hindering such performances". By inviting Habima, Shakespeare's Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.

The Globe says it wants to "include" the Hebrew language in its festival – we have no problem with that. "Inclusiveness" is a core value of arts policy in Britain, and we support it. But by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company. We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.

The March 29 letter is a restatement of the position taken in undated letter which (based on the date of the Ynet article that cites it) was published sometime prior to January 2, 2012. Boycott From Within, the organization that issued the letter, appears to be primarily made up of Israeli citizens who support the Boycott, Devestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that was initiated by a coalition of Palestinian NGOs in early 2005, several months after the Ariel Sharon-led Israeli government announced plans to withdraw the Gaza settlements, a plan that was accomplished in August of 2005, quite without the assistance of BDS. Indeed, it becomes hard to identify any concrete accomplishment of the BDS movement beyond providing a rallying cry for anti-Israel activists in the west; they certainly have not advanced the goal of a two-state solution, nor can they claim responsibility for any of the small victories of recent years, like Israel's dismantling of checkpoints within the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority's own crack down on militant groups in areas which it controls.

The Boycott From Within document, unlike the March 29 letter, specifically names the two West Bank settlements:
Ariel and Kiryat Arba, like most settlements, are surrounded by walls and fences, closely guarded by soldiers and their own armed security personnel. A theatrical performance in a settlement is by definition a performance to an exclusively Israeli audience, with Palestinians living even in the nearest village being physically excluded from any chance of attending.

[...]on this issue the management of Habima has taken a position which is remote from any kind of social engagement. Claiming to be "non-political", the management has reiterated its decision to perform in West Bank settlements, "like everywhere else". Moreover, the management specifically promised Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture in the Netanyahu Government, to "deal with any problems hindering such performances", i.e. to pressure recalcitrant actors into taking part in them, even against the dictates of their conscience. And it must be pointed out that for several months, Habima has indeed sent out its actors to hold theatrical performances in West Bank settlements, on a regular basis.
The first point that should be made, of course, is that while Ariel and Kiryat Arba are controversial, they are not, strictly speaking, illegal. While there are illegal settlements, of course, such as Migron (which the Israeli Supreme Court recently ordered the Israeli government to demolish), under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the status of settlements like Ariel and Kiryat Arba are pending final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They might end up as part of a land-swap between the two states, they might be evacuated, or they might become an example of Jewish residents within the future Palestinian state much as there are Arab citizens in Israel (though that possibility is less likely, given recent statements by Mahmoud Abbas and his government.) So whether or not the settlements' establishment was legal (there are differing interpretations on whether the Fourth Geneva Convention applies) the Oslo Accords essentially table it as a legal issue, turning it into a political issue.

The question about the security measures around Ariel and Kiryat Arba are very simple: they exist under a different jurisdiction than the surrounding areas; the authorities on each side of the fences having not finalized a peace treaty. Despite efforts by the Palestinian Authority to crack down on militant groups operating in its own jurisdiction, recent examples such as the Itamar attack of March 11, 2011 in which five members of the Fogel family were murdered in their beds by terrorists, or an August 31, 2010 killing of four settlers in a drive-by shooting outside of Kiryat Arba make these security measures understandable, even if they result in audiences not being drawn from geographically adjacent areas. It should also be noted that under the Oslo Accords, Israeli citizens are essentially required to stay on their side of the fence as well (one of the ways by which Israeli courts determine if a settlement is legal or illegal.) This separation is thusly one that has been agreed upon by the governments representing the two peoples: whether these governments' leaders proceed wisely and courageously or foolishly and fearfully, the status of these settlements made the transition from legal matter to political matter 19 years ago.

Of course, both the March 29th letter and its undated antecedent read politics into Habima's performances in Ariel and Kiryat Arba. According to Haaretz Ilan Ronen, Habima's artistic director, responded thusly:
The attempt to portray Habima as a mouthpiece of this or that policy wrongs the creators, the actors, and anyone who is a part of our endeavor.

Performing in all of Israel is not the initiative of Habima, as the letter presents, by is a result of state law, to which all public cultural institutes are subject.
More recently, in The Guardian, Ronen further explained Habima's position:
It's a disgrace. We don't see ourselves as collaborators with the Israeli government over its West Bank policy. We don't remember artists boycotting other artists.

[...]It is important to emphasise, we express our political views in many of our projects. But like other theatre companies and dance companies in Israel, we are state-financed, and financially supported to perform all over the country. This is the law. We have no choice. We have to go, otherwise there is no financial support.

[...]Artists should create bridges where there is conflict; the issue of Israel and the Palestinians is an area in which European dialogue can be very helpful in creating a better atmosphere. To boycott us prevents any artistic dialogue.
Habima falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and Sport which can mandate that Habima perform anywhere under Israeli jurisdiction much as the Israel Postal Company is mandated to deliver the mail. Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat is a Likud member and generally considered to be rather sympathetic to the Israeli settler movement, and since her post in the Netayahu cabinet is a fairly minor one, there is little she can do for her political constituency but mandate that companies that receive state funding perform in West Bank settlements. Perhaps Habima would not be so mandated were the Ministry controlled by a more left-leaning or centrist party. Theatre artists who are not affiliated with the state are free to be politically engaged and choose to participate in a boycott or politically engaged and oppose a boycott. However, Ronen, according to the April 7th article in The Guardian, states that Habima-affiliated artists who had moral or political objections to performing in the settlements were able to opt-out without fear of retribution. The charge that Habima is somehow violating a principle of being "non-political" accepting its mandate while simultaneously allowing individual artists to opt out of this mandate is nonsensical.

Months before the March 29th letter, Shakespeare's Globe had already issued a response to Boycott From Within's letter on their Facebook page on January 6th, which also anticipates the position of March 29th letter:
[...W]e deliberated long and hard about the issue of inclusion and exclusion of companies – programming such a comprehensive festival requires a huge amount of such consideration, in order to ensure that it is truly an international event. We came to the conclusion that active exclusion was a profoundly problematic stance to take – because the question of which nations deserve inclusion or exclusion is necessarily subjective. Where does one start in such an endeavour? Clearly for you with Israel, but for many others, it would be with a host of different states. And more pertinently, where does one stop?

Rather, we wished to celebrate the huge variety of languages and cultures which have encountered, learnt from and extended the reach of Shakespeare’s work, and as such we were determined to reflect as wide and as comprehensive a variety of languages as possible. In creating our programme, we have tried our best to balance that universality with the infinite variety shown in Shakespeare’s works. Our commitment to universality is reflected in the fact that the Ashtar Theatre from Ramallah, who have done more than any other theatre group to highlight the nature of life in the Gaza Strip with their
Gaza Monologues, are performing Shakespeare’s Richard II at Globe to Globe.

[...]Habima are the most well-known and respected Hebrew-language theatre company in the world, and are a natural choice to any programmer wishing to host a dramatic production in Hebrew. They are committed, publicly, to providing an ongoing arena for sensible dialogue between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

[...I]t remains our contention, and we think a suitable one for a Shakespearean theatre, that people meeting and talking and exchanging views is preferable to isolation and silence. For that reason, and for the others above, we remain convinced that it is right to work with all the companies we have chosen for the Globe to Globe Festival.
Several of the companies participating in the festival hail from countries undergoing protracted conflict or having recently emerged from conflict: there are companies not just from Israel and Palestine, but South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The People's Republic of China has a notorious human rights record, and is well known for its suppression of both the Tibetan and Uyghur peoples and political dissidents in general, yet the same figures urging a boycott of Habima are silent on the National Theatre of China's presentation of Richard III.

It is also apparent from even the most cursory investigation of the English language version of the Habima webiste, that the company not only employs and trains both Jewish and Arab artists, but also to performs to both Jewish and Arab audiences, which is as much part of their mandate to perform "in all of Israel" as performing in the settlements.

The great irony, of course, is that both Boycott From Within and the 37 British artists are protesting Habima's performance The Merchant of Venice, perhaps the single literary work that most defined the manner in which Jews are portrayed in British literature. Indeed, Habima's plan to perform The Merchant of Venice was received criticism in Israel, including from people involved with the theatre. Many have noted that the character of Shylock is the template from which the vulgar anti-Semitic stereotypes of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, T.S. Eliot's Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, and Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children are cut (Churchill, not surprisingly, signed March 29th letter calling for the Globe to revoke Habima's invitation.) Ronen defended his choice to direct The Merchant of Venice this past December:
Dozens of the best Jewish actors, including Antony Sher and Dustin Hoffman, alongside other acting legends, have played the role of Shylock knowing that the play actually deals with the persecution of the Jew and xenophobia.
While it has become the fashion over the past few decades to represent The Merchant of Venice as an anti-anti-Semitic narrative, and see Shakespeare as a critic of prejudice (as the case with the acclaimed Dark Tresnjak-helmed production that had F. Murray Abraham in the role of Shylock) The anti-anti-Semitic reading frequently hinges on ignoring major themes and recurring motifs in the play, such as the theological grounding in medieval and early-modern anti-Judaic polemics, or the thematic linkage between Jews and the Devil that were part of that era's folklore as much as the bond of the pound of flesh. While I am certainly not privy to Ronen's take on the play, I would suggest that to make a truly anti-anti-Semitic statement with The Merchant of Venice one should deliberately horrify the audience by unapologetically playing up every anti-Semitic trope in the play, especially the ones normally ignored in modern productions.

What would banning Habima from performing accomplish when even Israeli governments that have been less friendly with the settler movement than the current one have not been able to reach a mutually agreeable peace with their Palestinian counterparts? Ultimately, the 37 theatre artists who put their names to the March 29th letter to The Guardian are not merely artists urging a boycott of other artists but British artists attacking Jewish artists interpreting the representation of Jews in English literature, which only underlines the anti-Semitic subtext of the "inclusiveness" that the signatories claim to support.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Slaughterhouse Five and Being Duped About Dresden

As an occasional reader of Dangerous Minds, I took interest when contributor Paul Gallagher posted the following video taken from an interview of Kurt Vonnegut by BBC news presenter James Naughtie for a 2005 episode of This Week that commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Allied Forces' bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut's experience of the bombing of Dresden, which he survived while being kept in an underground meat locker as a prisoner of war, famously informs what is arguably his most celebrated novel, Slaughterhouse Five.

Note that in the interview, he gives the death toll of the bombing of Dresden as 135,000. This is consistent with the 1969 novel. It is also consistent with the autobiographical note from the introduction of Mother Night:

Everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men. So we were put to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters, bringing bodies out.

During the 1960s, when he was researching his novel, not much was known by the general American or British public regarding the bombing, and so he relied on what appeared to be the most authoritative account available: David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden. The original 1963 edition of The Destruction of Dresden claimed that the raids by the United States Army Air Force and Royal Air Force are "estimated authoritatively to have killed more than 135,000 of the population" of Dresden. There are several problems with this figure, not only have historians subsequently shown that the figure is much smaller, but Irving, going against all scholarly protocols, relied on a single source for this figure of 135,000–– namely the testimony of Hans Voigt. Voigt had been an assistant schoolmaster in Dresden who had been placed in charge of a dead persons department by the Saxon Ministry of the Interior. Voigt's office identified approximately 40,000 victims, but Voigt told Irving that the dead were likely 135,000. This statement was Irving's only evidence for that figure. Voigt, however, was not a simple former schoolmaster who had an unpleasantly morbid wartime job: By the time he was in touch with Irving in 1961, he was under observation by local authorities for fascist activities. Irving, taking this figure of 135,000 to be authoritative also gives an estimate of a death toll as high as 250,000 (derived entirely from Nazi propaganda.)

In subsequent years, Irving would come to revise his earlier estimate, but as late as 1993 still estimated that that more than 100,000 people had died in the bombing.

David Irving is no longer taken seriously as a historian. Over a career spanning decades, he became more and more associated with Holocaust denial and Nazi apologetics. As each new book came under increased scrutiny, numerous reviewers had noted that Irving was unscrupulous with historical evidence, routinely manipulating the evidence to promote a pro-Hitler agenda. In 1993, Deborah Lipstadt wrote in her book, Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory:

A review of [Irving's] recent book, Churchill's War, which appeared in New York Review of Books, accurately analyzed his practice of applying a double standard of evidence. He demands "absolute documentary proof" when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving's tactics, but of those of [Holocaust] deniers in general.

In 1996 Irving filed a libel suit against Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books. Richard J. Evans, a historian who had been hired by the defense to analyze Irving's writings and handling of the evidence, was able to substantially demonstrate in his testimony that Irving, in fact, consistently manipulated evidence in order, if not to cast Nazi Germany and the Allies as moral equivalents, to portray Germany as the victim and the Allies as villains of World War II. (Note: While Evans' testimony addressed the entirety of Irving's published works, we are focussed on Irving's claims about Dresden. Evans recounted his work as an expert witness in Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, And The David Irving Trial which was published in 2001; the UK edition is titled Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial.)

Even before the trial, Irving's figures were already widely discredited amongst WWII historians and were largely contradicted by documentary evidence. A "Final Report" issued by the Dresden Police on March 15, 1945 placed the death toll at 18,375. The police report was classified as "secret" and suppressed by the local party. Most official reports of the time give death tolls ranging from 20,000 to 22,000. A 2008 study commissioned by the city of Dresden, entitled “Dresden Commission of Historians for the Ascertainment of the Number of Victims of the Air Raids on the City of Dresden on 13/14 February 1945” gives an estimate of 18,000. While other historians had before that point proposed higher figures, up until the 2008 report. Quite simply, no serious investigation of the bombing of Dresden on February 13th and 14th 1945 has proposed a death toll higher than 25,000.

The point is that over the course of his career Vonnegut had many opportunities to learn that the figure of 135,000 dead from the bombing of Dresden was not backed up by evidence, especially as his main source had been repeatedly discredited-- not merely in scholarly publications but in a high profile court decision that was issued in April of 2000–– five years before the BBC interview. As Vonnegut's fiction and non-fiction essays are arguably the most persistent manner by which the bombing of Dresden has entered into the popular consciousness within the Anglophone world, it strains credulity that no one had attempted to contact Vonnegut about his repeated misstatement. If Vonnegut were understandably reluctant to alter the text of his novels, it still seems odd that he would not issue a correction in the introductions or postscripts of subsequent printings, or at least a clarification in an interview. It is even more disturbing that neither James Naughtie nor any other BBC staff working on a story about the bombing of Dresden attempted to correct Vonnegut during the interview, or edit out a misstatement of fact.

Vonnegut is not the only artist who may have been duped by David Irving. As I have noted elsewhere, British playwright Michael Frayn, while researching Copenhagen, his 1998 play about Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and the nuclear bomb, similarly relied upon Irving's writings, citing Irving's 1967 book, The Virus House (published the following year in the U.S. as The German Atomic Bomb.) Also citing correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and David Irving in his postscript to the play.) Frayn similarly draws a false moral equivalence between his two physicists, making much of Heisenberg's anguish at the bombing of German cities while downplaying not just the horrors that Germany visited from the air, but portraying Bohr as morally aloof, ignoring his humanitarian efforts that helped save the Jews of Denmark from extermination (Frayn's also play insinuates that Heisenberg had an indirect role in the rescue.) While Frayn is hardly the Nazi-apologist that Irving is, he too obscures historical facts in such a way as to present a story of German victimhood (though in a "Post-Postscript" of which I was not previously aware he defends himself from this criticism merely by stating that German war crimes are well enough known to the general public.)

These numbers become even more problematic for Vonnegut because he makes a direct comparison between Dresden bombing and the Holocaust noting that the exaggerated death-toll "is between two and three percent of the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust." (The 2% to 3% figure results in either the impossibly low figure of 4,455,000 to the high estimate of 6,750,000–– but we must not fault Vonnegut for not using decimals in an interview.) Even as David Irving is reviled within the field of World War II history as a fraud and a Holocaust denier, by duping Vonnegut, he has successfully mythologized Dresden in the popular consciousness, thus enlisting many a self-identified humanist in an effort to draw a false moral equivalence between the Third Reich and the Allies–– precisely what Hitler apologists try to do, even as they deny or attempt minimize the scale or significance of the Holocaust.