Monday, December 31, 2007

The Playwrights Are Revolting!

We end 2007 with controversy, miei amici. Which seems about right for a fairly fractious year.

I moderate a playwriting unit that meets every other week to read new work by member writers and to respond to it. The group is a joy to me, because it means I frequently get to hear original work in the crucible of its creation, brought in by brave writers who trust each other enough to show work while it’s still in progress.

Here’s the prob: how best to respond to that work. For four years, the format (as established by me) has been that the writer whose work we’re reading sets up the guidelines for how s/he wants responses. She can ask questions of us along certain lines. He can ask the other writers if they have questions. It’s fine for the playwright to want no response at all, of course. Et cetera. S/he can also invite any and all comments with no filtering at all, which personally I disapprove of, but again it is up to the writer.

Well, suddenly there’s a movement afoot to switch to a no-holds-barred approach to response. And it really disturbs me. I feel it leads to script doctoring of the most reckless kind – even, yes, when people don’t start out meaning to do it. I’ve seen it happen in other groups; the writer seems to be asking for advice, and the next you know you hearing “you should do this” or “I would do that.” And all too often these easily voiced suggestions have nothing to do with the writer’s impetus for writing the script in the first place.

So I’m tempest-toss’d. Do you have an idea about this? What do you do in your own writers’ groups?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Premature E-cachinnation

Days to go before it’s 2008, I realize, but already I’ve resolved to devolve in the coming year. There’s something I’d like to do a lot less, and it’s a something that’s frequently regarded by others as a signature of sorts for me – my smile.

The impetus for this, you ax? It comes out of a conversation I had a while back with Adam Bock. Now Adam is not a smiley kind of guy, in my opinion, but it came out that we came to feel we both offer up our smiles too much and too easily, as a reflex. Adam observed that it’s a trait endemic to gay men in particular – smiling as an act of submission, a way of saying “see, I’m harmless.” Just as so many gay people wind up in helping professions as an unconscious way of self-justification (“I make an important contribution to society”), so too does the self-deprecating smile telegraph that the smiler is soft and toothless and not worth attacking.

Also, because society tends to look on smiling, friendly people as weaker than their more impassive counterparts, smiling for gay men can broadcast an acceptance of their own second-class status.

There is a study related to this, which John Tierney quoted in The New York Times earlier this year, that speaks to this bias:

While we typically think of a smile as displaying our emotional state (happiness), it also appears that smiles convey information about the signaler’s status. Specifically, lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals. I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that there are several different types of smiles, including a true happiness smile and a true embarrassment smile. The latter smile, the embarrassment display, is often seen as an appeasement display in primates. Jimmy Carter smiled a lot, George Bush smiles much less. Jimmy Carter is generally perceived to be warm and friendly, but not very dominant and strong. George Bush is perceived be somewhat less warm and friendly, but is seen as quite dominant and strong.

Not that we shouldn’t smile at all, thank heavens people do. But for me, well . . . it’s a habit I’d like to break. And let me add that (notwithstanding the illustration I chose to accompany this post) I’m not saying my smile is fake or forced, I’ve just come to the point where I distrust my very readiness to smile. To always seek to blend with others, to pacify, to help and to cheerlead.

So don’t take it personally if the next time we meet my face is a perfect Botox blank. Blame Adam!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ye Olde Yule Log

Remember the never-ending fireplace show that WPIX used to air out of New York every holiday season? Endlessly looping round and round, in defiance of all dramatic expectation, it really was just a burning log crackling away in a fireplace. To the eternal accompaniment, naturally, of Christmas carols mit schlag. In the past I had many a late night visitor who sat with me in front of the TV, talking quietly and sipping something hot, while the Yule Log did its holiday thing in front of us.

No doubt at the time we thought we were all very po-mo and ironic, but was nice.

And actually there was some dramatic development. If you watched the screen assiduously and long enough, you would be rewarded by the sight of a hand -- slowly emerging from the left of the screen, like an old-time vaudeville kill crook -- to adjust the log in the fire! Very exciting.

Now all you web-o-maniacs may enjoy the virtual Log from the comfort of your computer station. There are many versions available on YouTube; I've included the longest one I could find, but there are others that eschew the holiday tunes to provide you with the more elemental snap, crackle & pop of the fire itself.

Anyone know how to make a YouTube vid loop automatically, just like on the TV??

Happy Holidays, everybody.
With Love from

the mead

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

For Your Eyes Only

Portland Center Stage’s
Now Hear This
invites you to a concert reading of


a new play by Jason Grote


December 29, 2007
Noon to approximately 2 pm
@ Portland Center Stage
128 NW Eleventh Avenue (between Couch & Davis)

Admission is free, but space is very limited, so RSVP

Please call Megan Ward at (503) 445-3845 or e-mail
to reserve your seat


If you came to JAW last year, you’ll remember Jason Grote as the provocateur who brought us Box Americana. Jason writes smart, funny and imaginative dialogue that creates a world in which these vivid characters can play. His other plays include 1001, This Storm Is What We Call Progress, and Hamilton Township.

Maria/Stuart is a wild ride with a fabulously dysfunctional family. All families have secrets, but this one includes an inherited shapeshifting spook who faxes in unpleasant truths and has an unslakable thirst for soda. Grote uses Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart as his inspiration, but the play is hardly an adaptation; it jumps off the deep end immediately to veer into terra incognita. Trust me, it’s a comedy!

Our outstanding cast includes:
JoAnn Johnson, Sharonlee McLean, Sarah Lucht, Karla Mason, Julie Jeske Murray and Chris Murray, with stage directions read by Stefan Kay

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lurkers vs. Commenters: a coda

I happened across this posting tonight whilst looking for something else. It should come as no surprise that there are blogs about blogging, but this post, from Blog about Your Blog, addresses what so many of you said recently in one way or another that I thought I'd share this treatise. Bon appetit.


Everyone likes comments.

There are bloggers who put comments above visits when judging their own success. I’m always pleased to see in the morning several comments stretched over my blogs. In fact nothing makes the process more enjoyable for me than reading a new commenter and seeing them come back.

Over at Jakob Nielsen they determined that reader participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

· 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).
· 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
· 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.

Now it’s true that this ratio is something that you’re just going to have to accept, there will always be a much higher percentage of lurkers. It doesn’t matter who you are. There are some ways to improve upon them though. I’ve sifted through a lot of them and here are what I consider the best ten ways to squeeze those comments out of your readers and of course in doing so make you smile (go on it’s ok - at least a grin).

1. Ask for the comment. Invite your readers to leave a comment or participate. For new readers to your site they may feel a little out of your community. This is your chance to say ‘hey I want to hear what you’ve got!’

2. End your post with a question. This gives a springboard for your readers to know what they can say if they want to comment but not sure what to say.

3. Make it easy to post a comment. If it is too hard to leave a comment who is going to bother? You’re already batting against the 90:9:1 ratio. Don’t make it so your readers have to a particular account to leave a comment. I’m not against the verification text myself to stop spam either.

4. Make friends with other bloggers, by leaving comments and striking up conversations you will often get loyal readers in return. It’s never a good idea to go out of your way to be negative on someone else’s blog because you’ll only hurt your own reputation in the long run.

5. Interact positively with your comments. If someone takes the time to leave a comment you should respond! Even if you don’t agree with what’s said you can always discuss it like an adult without turning it into a negative conversation. Others will see you responding and be encouraged themselves.

As with anything some of these will work for you and others may not. Why not pick one and force yourself to do it for at least 2 weeks to see what difference it makes to the comments.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Blogger

Is it something I said?

Maybe it's something I fail to say. Or the way my blog postings are worded, or perhaps they're just not compelling enough to invite comment. I know from the site meter that people arrive and depart from this virtual Illyria, yet only rarely do they feel moved to leave behind some trace.

Sister Michael Anthony always used to say that comparing yourself to others is fatal. But I can't help but be a bit jealous of those colleagues o'mine whose posts always inspire a few responses, and occasionally -- as in the case of Blogger Extraordinaire Prince Gomolvilas -- elicit long chains of reaction.

Okay, bad example. I just visited Bamboo Nation (Mr. G's aforementioned blogolopolis) and noticed that it is ineluctably fascinating. But what about the blogs of certain friends who detail the most quotidian of their doings and average several comments per posting?

You say: hey Dr Phun, how bout a little whine with that cheese, and of course you're right. But to brandish another cliche: I just want to be loved, is that so wrong??

So I ax you. Allow me, for once, to solicit your comments directly. What am I doing wrong? You're the only one who can help me, Obi-wan. What excites readers' interest enough for them to reassure me I am not all alone out here?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

So this is Bob Hicks.

If you search for "Bob Hicks" on Google Images, a bewildering plethora of photos appear, none of which is Bob. My favorite is the most inexplicable one, of course -- this picture of the popular crooner Linda Rodney. Qu'est-ce que c'est, eh?

To clarify, none of the images that pop up are our Bob Hicks. There are numerous other personages claiming to be Bob Hicks, but only our Bob retired from The Oregonian last Friday, after decades of service to that paper and to the theater commmunity as Portland's leading arts and culture journalist. In an outpouring of appreciation, the theater community (as organized by Sherry Lamoreaux, Mary MacDonald Lewis and others), took out a colossal ad in the paper to which Bob contributed so much. Contributions beyond what the ad cost were sent to PATA for its Valentine Fund. Sherry as reported the outcome of all this on pdxbackstage.

As part of our BobFest, I wrote a short piece for The O, which it never actually got round to ... running. Harrumph. So here it is, for your personal delectation and for Mister Aitch's. Happy Trails to Our Bob Hicks.


Crritic! Samuel Beckett used this term as an epithet, complete with its famously emphatic spelling, by putting it in the mouth of his rag-tag character Estragon from Waiting for Godot. Estragon spits out the word trillingly, with relish and malice aforethought, using it to trounce his fellow-waiter Vladimir in a name-calling contest.

Evidently Beckett did not think fondly of critics, and Western literature (dramatic and otherwise) is rife with writers at odds with professional opiners. Yet time has proven that a critic need not be merely a pontificator. She or he can illuminate works of art for us in ways that open them up, reveal them. The gifted critic can provide us with a point of entry into a new work, or give us a fresh vantage on a familiar one.

Such a one is Bob Hicks.

Bob, who is The Oregonian’s senior critic, retires on December 7 after decades of service to the publication as an arts editor and writer. For nearly half of those years, he was the newspaper’s full-time theater critic; he also edited the Friday entertainment supplement and the Sunday arts section. When Bob steps down, therefore, the performing arts community loses more than a discerning critic. It loses a champion.

For many of us, the tireless Mr. Hicks epitomizes excellence in arts journalism. Over the years he has become a friend and an ally to our community, but that familiarity never blunted his criticism one iota. Quite the contrary—it honed it. Bob’s sharpest critiques were always leveled at those who settled for mediocrity. Whether he wrote about revivals or world premieres, for him the greater failure was not falling short of a presumed status quo, but rather failing to strive for distinction.

In this way, through an aesthetic that developed gradually over the years, Bob has exhorted us to surpass our immediate artistic goals and to embrace a vision larger than ourselves. Bob had nothing less in his sights than a vision of what the arts could be in a town where we continually raised the bar for one another. He has given our audiences context when it was helpful, and lent perspective when it was most needed. Repeatedly he has challenged artists to surpass their own high watermarks, and he has encouraged Portlanders to support this as a civic endeavor. He has expressed his disappointment when we let him down, and he has eloquently offered his admiration whenever we succeeded. No wonder we miss him already.

Rest assured, however, that Bob won’t be going away altogether; his interests are too wide-ranging for him to remain totally absent. Recent cultural investigations have covered an increasingly broad spectrum, including visual arts, opera, classical music, movies, food, books, dance, performance art and even arts politics. Did you know that he's been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism – twice? Hence, with any luck, he’ll continue to be a welcome sight on the Portland theater scene.

See you in the lobby, Bob.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Mistletoe Madness

When my previous posting mentioned having a transcendent time at Susannah Mars' holiday cabaret, Mars on Life, little did I know that Susannah had been through a harrowing performing experience only days before.

One of the warmest and most transporting moments of the show is a song entitled "Thalj" -- "Snow." Song entirely in Arabic, Susannah uses this music and its language and her voice to give us the special gift of shared wonder with another culture, one that is little understood by most of the world, I'm sure.

Evidently not everybody has appreciated the interlude. Well, one person, anyway. The show was disrupted last week by an outraged spectator. You can read an account of this on a Portland theater blog called OnStage; currently this posting is the top one. Playwright and actor Patrick Wohlmut (a frequent contributor to this blog) eloquently describes the event as well as its implications for us -- please check it out if you can.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Seasoned Greetings

Great night out at the theater with my sainted mother, who’s here in Portland, with her equally sainted sister, to see “my” “adaptation” of A Christmas Carol at PCS. Actually that blessed event slouches toward the Armory this Friday; tonight we went to see the incomparable Susannah Mars in her holiday show at A.R.T., Mars on Life. As always Susannah charmed us all the way into the holidays. It’s great to be able to say of a performing artist that the warmth and genuineness so evident onstage is simply who she really is. Both mother and son were totally beguiled by Ms. Mars.

As for Christmas Carol, here’s another fun video for it, created by PCS’s fab resident Multimedia Designer Patrick Weishampel, profiling the show’s cast and creative team. Near as I can make out, I am the only member of that team Patrick did not interview. But how can I carp about it when Ted deChatelet singles me out for praise along the way? Love that Ted. Patrick, too. Love Susannah, plus sainted mother and equally sainted aunt/godmother.

Dang. Did I think I just lost my street cred re: Eschewing Syrupy Sentimentality?

Monday, December 3, 2007


Okay, I realize that when noted author, actor and snarkateur Patrick Wohlmut exhorted me (via my own tag board, mind you) to come up with a fresh post, what follows is not what he had in mind. But it's what I've got: the first review in of the new PCS adaptation of A Christmas Carol, adapted by moi-meme.

The always perceptive Rich Wattenberg is generally positive in his review, but his demurrers tear at my heart because.....I know he's right. Tech difficulties plagued the preview process up to and into opening night. EmbarRRRrassing! But they seem to be behind us now, knock on virtual wood. Anyhow, the behemoth is open at last. And anyhow, audiences seems to be loving it. And I'm tickled to be praised in the critical press for "eschewing syrupy sentimentality."

In fact, that's going on my business card. "Mr Mead, eschewing syrupy sentimentality for over 30 years." Or: "Dr Phun, eschewing syrupy sentimentality for all occasions -- weddings, bar mitzvahs...."

And anyhow:

Theater review: A jolly "Christmas Carol"
by Richard Wattenberg/ Special to The Oregonian
Sunday December 02, 2007, 4:40 PM

We know that "Nutcrackers" wait in the wings. And "Messiah" rehearsals are sending Handel soaring to the rafters. And various other seasonal stocking stuffers are coming, too. But this weekend, the first major holiday shoe dropped, in the form of a new version of "A Christmas Carol" at Portland Center Stage.

After a six-year hiatus, Center Stage has returned to the classic Charles Dickens story. Adapted by Mead Hunter and directed by Cliff Fannin Baker this year's dramatization of the novel is very different from the spare David McCann version directed by Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman in 2000 and 2001. Spiced with loads of holiday music and magical theater effects, this production has its rough edges, but it's plenty of fun.

Although more traditional than the McCann version, Hunter's script eschews syrupy sentimentality. Offering a brisk, clear telling of the story, Hunter's adaptation will please viewers of all ages. Certainly, moments of the current production touch the heart, but a playfully good-spirited, often broad humor is its distinguishing feature.

In the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, Wesley Mann skillfully sets the tone. A little, jowly fellow, Mann's Scrooge quickly -- perhaps too quickly -- changes from the unpleasant, stodgy miser of the early scenes into a mumbling, bumbling, likable old man once the Christmas ghosts begin to appear.

The Ghost of Christmas Future's ominous warnings to Scrooge may not create much dramatic tension, but the dear old chap's dancing, prancing joy at the discovery after his night of strange visitations that he still has a chance to change his ways is delightfully entertaining.

A talented cast of actors adeptly creates the host of colorful characters who people this Scrooge's world. Tim True is fine as the gentle, well-meaning Bob Cratchit, and Ted deChatelet ably portrays Scrooge's patient and loyal nephew Fred. Ted Roisum's ghostly Marley is amusingly eerie both in appearance and sound, and Todd Van Voris is fun in a variety of roles.

Several actors, including some of the company's youthful performers (who all wonderfully hold their own in this production), work well together to give us a spooky, but not too spooky, Ghost of Christmas Past. Perhaps most fun of all, however, is Julianna Jaffe's jovially over-the-top, operatic Ghost of Christmas Present.

Rick Lewis' musical compositions and arrangements capture the holiday spirit and provide splendid aural support for the play's unearthly happenings. With respect to those happenings, this production depends heavily on well-engineered scenery and stage effects.

Sure, Scrooge's shop may seem a bit cramped, the high-flying Christmas Present may seem to have a bumpier ride than necessary, and some of the actors may occasionally be seen scurrying about in the wings, but such flaws hardly disturb the evening's merriment.