Sunday, October 31, 2010

All Hallows Eve

No doubt you’ve gathered that I love all things Hallowe’en. The cheesy cinematic frightfests, the symphonic renditions of the Dies Irae, the kids’ costumes, the scary cocktails and appetizers, the whole silly business.

Yet on the actual night of the 31st, you won’t catch me out partying. For me it’s a high holiday — a spiritual tide I want to hitch a ride on — and thus a time for meditation.

Though the usual concept of the holiday’s antecedents is that it was about frightening about away unwanted spirits, there’s more to it than that. The basic idea, for the ancient Celts, was that at this time of year, the membrane between the seen and the unseen was thinnest. Sure, you might want to take precautions about unwelcome spooks, but what about those you would want? Your ancestors, in other words, or the recently departed.

I have a few of both I’d like to hear from again. So later tonight, when the street noise has died down and the kids are back at home sorting through their plunder, I’ll be listening closely for a word from some people I very much miss.

Toward that end, here’s a little music, courtesy of Harold Budd and Brian Eno (from their album The Pearl) for all you October people.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dark Shadows rises from the vaults

Tomorrow I'll blog about what All Hallows Eve really means to me. But lest you think I don't appreciate the creepy/kooky/mysterious/ooky part of the occasion, here's "one from the vaults," as Dr. Frankenfurter sez.

When I was a boy, a new soap opera appeared on daytime TV: Dark Shadows. Because it came on right around the time I got from home school, my brother and I used to watch it while we had our afternoon snack. It was supposed to be a gothic romance, like Wuthering Heights or Rebecca. Only this was set on the spooky Maine coast -- the very area Stephen King would later mine so much from -- and though the show got the moody, claustrophobia-inducing atmosphere down pat, it was (pardon the expression) deadly dull.

And not just to kids, apparently. Ratings plummeted. Finally, in a desperate move, the show's creators took the show in a radical new direction ... and the rest is television history. Feast your eyes on that episode of the no-budget, semi-unintentionally camp horrorfest, Dark Shadows, where you were guaranteed a live blooper in nearly every airing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hilarity and Disparity at Portland Playhouse

Currently playing at Portland Playhouse: one of my favorite plays of all time, Telethon, by Kristin Newbom. This play focuses on three people with various forms of disability, and their two underpaid, undervalued caretakers, who are only minimally more functional, all within the context of a “treat” for the disabled charges, as all five as adjourn from an unspecified fundraising event to a Dunkin’ Donuts. Most of the play is laugh-out-loud funny, but watch out -- you're being set up.

SPOILER ALERT! If you don’t want to know what happens in the play, read no further.

All five characters are put through a process defined by American holidays that call for or allow dressing up in costume. Over the course of Halloween, Christmas and Easter, the Dunkin’ Donuts bears witness to the changes — subtle, blatant or nonexistent — in their lives.

Telethon’s climax comes, aptly enough, at Easter, a time that celebrates renewal; the two caretakers are about to undergo major reversals of fortune. They're so caught up in their own news that they hardly notice the turmoil they’re causing their charges: one of them seems stunned, another cries quietly, and the third goes to a pay phone and attempts to call 911.

The uproar ends the scene and we segue to the Fourth of July, but now the Dunkin’ Donuts is quiet. And as we take this in the empty stage, we realize those five people will never visit the place together again. The phone is still dangling off the hook and, weirdly, we hear one side of a conversation coming out of it.

Now: when we first presented this play in reading form during JAW, and again now in Portland Playhouse’s excellent production, people have been baffled by this final scene. Some have gone so far as to say the coda has no relation to the play! But you know … it’s always worth our while to assume the playwright had something in mind. Such as an imaginative leap. Or to jump a synapse from one epiphany to the next, and ask you to forge the connection yourself.

In the wake of love lost, of abandoned relationships and the sheer heedlessness of life’s relentless momentum, the emptiness of the stage in this final scene devastates me. The sense of revelation hovering on the fringes, yet always just barely beyond our grasp, reminds me of Beckett’s most moving works.

I therefore want to share the text of this final scene with you (I have Kristin’s blessing and that of the show’s director, Rose Riordan), in the hopes that when you see the play, viewing the footage of the parade described below and hearing half of a conversation that’s like a lifeline to another time, the scene will have the impact for you that it does for me.

Telethon continues through this weekend, closing where the script begins — on Halloween.






Yeah, I know.
It’s strange how things happen.

Uh huh.

Remember that night out on the driveway?


Because the sunflowers had stopped blooming.
I picked the last three and brought them in.
They were a little mangled, but they looked okay.


We had just come back from dinner.
You took us to that little restaurant in your old neighborhood.
What was it?

Yeah, Sam’s Wiener House.
That’s right.

Uh huh.

Nine wieners with everything on them,
six orders of fries,
four milkshakes,
a diet coke
and a sprite.
The kids sat at the counter.
Spun around and around on the stools while we talked.

The first house you bought.
The dog you had before the kids were born.
That tattoo you got in the army.
Your job.
Those guys you had to fire.
Your brothers and sisters.
The town where you grew up.
The Sunday morning flea market.
Your grandmother’s farm.
The stack of Penthouses and bag of weed you had hid in her shed.
How your parents died.
Your first girlfriend.
What was her name?

Oh yeah.

You knew just when to leave.
Before the kids threw up from too much spinning.

I offered to pay.
You said it was your treat.

On the way back you showed us the best trick or treat house.
The one where the guy dressed up in stilts as Uncle Sam?


When we got back we stood there in the driveway.
The kids rode their bikes around and around
And the sky turned from blue to orange.
You only had a few minutes before you had to go.

You looked so sad that night.

We want to make sense of it all.
Want to grasp onto some kind of reason for the hurt.

It all goes by so quickly doesn’t it?

They are ripped from us.
All of them.

They come into our lives.
The people we care for
Or who take care of us.
The ones we love and look after.
The ones who love us back
Despite it all.
And then they go.
Sometimes in a flash
Without any warning.
Other times in a long and lingering dance.

Yet the wars continue.
One grows into the next.
Kings and queens are killed and born again.
Discoveries, great works of art and riches are made, displayed
and forgotten.
We learn to spell.
We memorize the vocabulary words and dutifully we take the tests.
Our tiny world builds upon itself.
Like soap bubbles in the bath.
We gaze at ourselves, naked
And we wonder-
This world we are creating,
is it -


Oh, that’s okay
I should go too.

I will.

Take care.



Saturday, October 23, 2010

Confessions of a defector

For the second year in a row, I celebrated my 75th birthday at the Wordstock Festival. If you have to work on your solar return, Wordstock’s a grand place to do it: a swirling, teeming whirl of book lovers, exhibitors, publishers, book purveyors and of course authors.
Ironic indeed, therefore, that I came home on Sunday evening, exhausted but proud, to gifts that included a brand new ….. wait for it ……………. Kindle.

Yeah, a Kindle. You know, Amazon’s “wireless reading device,” the one whose advent of recent years was widely heralded as the death knell for books and bookstores both. And I got not just any Kindle, but the new improved model: smaller, lighter, faster and greyer than its ancestors, with free wifi and 3G built into it, making it reputedly of use where in the wide world.

With all the zealotry of a convert, immediately I popped for a sleek black leather cover for the device that actually has a night light built into its spine — an ingenious, marriage-saving innovation.

First downloads: Atwood’s latest, The Year of the Flood; Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs; and Between the Acts, Woolf’s brilliant and underrated novel that it’s time I revisited.

But the irony is not lost on me: I came straight from a festival where a constant topic of conversation concerned what happens to hardcover books in the digital age, and I gleefully launched into downloading virtual books.

The issues surrounding Kindles and their kin are legion. Most obviously: if you can already get many books steeply discounted by shopping at Amazon, and then the Kindle download costs close to half of that, who is making money anymore? If you guess it’s not the authors, you would be correct. One commentator has called digitalization of extant texts “the greatest act of piracy since Francis Drake sailed the Spanish Main.” But old or new, everyone takes a hit, from publisher to vendor.

One apparent winner in the digital death match (apart from the makers of e-book readers) is the consumer, who gets more for less. And therein lies the hope of the whole endeavor. If people can instantly gratify their impulses to get and read a certain book or newspaper or magazine, perhaps they will do it more often, and ultimately spend more money.

Sounds good. But then what happens to bookstores, which need to hold onto a vast inventory to be of any use? For that matter, what happens to festivals like Wordstock or the Brooklyn Book Festival, events that lure noteworthy authors with the promise of selling a lot of books?

Naturally enough, the answer is that they will have to gradually reinvent themselves and create new or augmented reasons for being. For instance, it’s great that I can start reading The Year of the Flood this instant. But nothing compares to trotting down to the Schnitz, as I did last month, to hear her and Ursula K. Le Guin chat about writing. And I will certainly have read Armistead Maupin’s new book Mary Ann in Autumn by the time he arrives at Powell’s (on November 12) -- only if I read on the Kindle, what will I give him to sign?

Anyway. There is a groundswell of thinking about the rights of everybody involved (see this, for example) — so much so that I’m tempted to go to law school (not really) just so I can part of hashing it all out. But as my own behavior attests, the genie is out of the bottle; one day books in print may be yet another artifact we refer to nostalgically as “sooooooo 20th century.”

Actually there are downsides for readers in this as well as upsides for writers -- but that’s another post. To be continued...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Zeitgeist in the Heights

Hate musicals? Especially hate the canned, prefab Broadway spectacles with music styling that’s 20 years out of date?

Running right now at the Keller is the antidote to all that: In the Heights, the Tony-winning upset (which snagged Best Musical of 2008, among other distinctions) that gleefully thumbs its nose at all the musical theater “rules” and gets away with it.

Indeed, if you’re a devotee of more typical Broadway fare, In the Heights may confuse you at first. Its Latin/rap-inflected musical idioms aside, it’s almost closer to opera than to musicals per se; it’s all but through-composed, with only a handful of spoken sections. Also, since the first rule of theater stagin in general is to control the eye of the spectator, it’s astonishing (and liberating) to find the show's staging does not always demand you stare at predetermined locations. In the dance numbers — and there are many — so much is going on in every corner of the stage, and it is so individuated (i.e.: not always patterned or synchronized), that you could watch this show several times before you saw it all. The photo at left gives you an idea. (It’s of the original Broadway cast, but I assure you the touring company now here in town is outstanding.)

And what dance it is. The dazzling spectrum of moves is largely free of the shopworn Vegas-style vocabulary that makes many musicals so dull; instead you’re treated to a frenetic, more free-form approach (or at least the illusion therefore) that looks like it’s right off the streets.

Another thing I appreciated about this show: since it’s about a neighborhood (specifically a corner in Washington Heights), it reflects all its residents, to be interracial and intergenerational. Sure there’s plenty of young love going on, but there are middle-aged and elderly residents, too, who get their time onstage. And their experience is beautifully reflected in the songs they sing: survivors favor anthems, older characters go for a lyrical style, and the youngsters sport more muscular, jangly motifs.

This truly is a musical for our time. In short: Starlight Express it ain’t.

The remarkable music and lyrics are by the man who conceived the show, Lin-Manuel Miranda. You can check out his Tony acceptance speech below, which may be the most stirring one ever delivered at the ceremony, and is here courtesy of the legendary Cousin Tabitha, who accompanied me to the Keller last night and loved it. By the way, the book is by Quiara Hudes, the playwright whose Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue got a beautiful, haunting production at Miracle Theatre Group a few years ago.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Autumn does this to me.

Whatever you think about Jonathan Larson's RENT (and let's face, the split over its artistic merits tends to be generational), the whole show is worth it for this one anthem. It's been said about literature that its only real subject is death. But the soul-shaking thing about theater is that it can testify to that inevitability -- that "our little life is rounded by a sleep" -- while simultaneously celebrating our joy that we got to be part of it.

Also, just for overkill, here's Idina Menzel's sweetly plaintive rendition of the same song:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wordstock takes off!

Since many people have asked what I recommend for this year’s edition of the Pacific Northwest’s largest literary and book fest, here’s a few very subjective offerings that I’m seeing for sure. Mind you, these are in addition to the big names I mentioned here last month: Meloy + Lethem + Chang + Egan + Bender. Plus my helpful hints at The Editing Room. But hey, why not take them all in? For ten minibucks you can stay all day both days, October 9-10 — and celebrate my 82nd birthday with me on Sunday in high style.

So. First off: if you make theater in Portland, you know Gemma Whelan, the Irish director. But did you know she’s a novelist? Well, special for you: her brand new novel, Fiona: Stolen Child has just been released. Gemma will read from the book on Sunday, and also participate in a panel discussion entitled “First Book, First Person.”

You may also be interested to know (or forewarned) that this year dueling film crews will be trawling the halls of the Oregon Convention Center. Monica Drake is behind a fictional film set at “a literary festival much like Wordstock” — I hear the role of an infant was just cast the other day — and the irrepressible Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book, will have a team all the way from Germany trailing her as she wends her way through the bustling weekend. Will the two crews bump into one another, a là Stanley & Livingstone, and start filming each other? That would be very po-mo.

A new gambit this year is what we’re calling “conversations” — not panels, just two or three people conversing around an allied topic, like when Jon Raymond and Jim Lynch discuss “place-based writing” on Sunday.

As for panels, hot ones abound this year. Among my faves: “Ghosts with the Most,” in which four successful ghostwriters talk about the perils and the pinnacles of the biz. That’s on Saturday. That same day, members of San Francisco’s The Grotto (including Stephen Elliot of Rumpus fame) and Portland’s Periscope cover how creating within a community of writers can jump start your work.

What else. Rumors abound of rogue journalists going the way of literary paparazzi this year; will the VIP Room be stormed? We find out Friday night at the aptly named authors’ reception.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hair Today, Hair Tomorrow: The Musical and Society

Guest post by Joy Paley

Hair, the ’60s counterculture musical, is coming to Portland Center for the Performing Arts in December. The classic rock musical, which celebrates radical political and social ideas that emerged during the Vietnam War era, has been running in various forms for the last 40 years, and you’ve felt its reverberations in popular culture whether you know it or not.

Groundbreaking for its time
When Hair debuted on Broadway in 1968, it sloughed off all notions of what was “appropriate” for a musical. James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the two men who conceived the musical, wanted to make theater that reflected the rising discontent and cultural change they felt in their neighborhood of the East Village. Rado and Ragni had friends who were dodging the draft; people were growing their hair long to protest mainstream society. Drugs, especially marijuana and LSD, were becoming widely used. Commenting on their idea for Hair, Rado said: “It was very important historically, and if we hadn’t written it, there’d not be any examples. We thought, ‘This is happening in the streets,’ and we wanted to bring it to the stage.”

Not just sensational
Hair wouldn’t be running for 40 years if the musical only had shock value to offer. Although the musical did offer the first totally nude actors on Broadway, as well as what many perceived to be a desecration of the American flag, the musical went beyond upsetting the older generation’s notions of propriety. It was more about questioning everything that was mindlessly accepted as a norm, whether it be from government or from society.

Hair was one of the first musicals to have a fully integrated cast; 1/3 of the cast members were African American. Songs in the musical openly mock racial stereotypes, such as “Colored Spade” where the militant black man Hud satirically reads off a list of racial slurs. In another song, a groups of white and black women sing about their love for the opposite race. Indeed, the subtitle for the musical is “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical,” and the idea of a tribe — a united group of diverse people — is an important theme.

Before and After Hair
Although Hair was groundbreaking as a musical that addressed issues of social unrest, it wasn’t without precedent. While in college, Rado was inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein plays; while the playwrights are often remembered as writing uplifting musicals like Oklahoma! and The King and I, their works also explored issues of race, sex, and class. South Pacific explored racist feelings of whites toward Pacific Islanders, and Carousel depicted domestic violence. Porgy and Bess, by Gershwin, also had a fully integrated cast.

Hair did invent the idea of the concept musical, a play where the theme or statement is more important than the plot. Other concept musicals sprung up after Hair, including Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures by Hal Prince in the’70s. After Hair, other musicals also went on to use rock music scores, including Two Gentleman of Verona, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease and Dreamgirls. Hair set the precedent for using theater as a venue of social change that can be seen in later successful musicals like Rent.

Where to see Hair
Hair is running at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts from Tuesday, December 28 to Sunday, January 2. On weekdays shows start at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2 and 7:30, and Sunday at 1 and 6:30. Information on purchasing tickets can be found at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts’ website.

Joy Paley is a guest blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog and a writer on online schools for Guide to Online Schools.