Define "a Life"...

... still searching for a clear definition of that thing people keep telling me I need to get...

Location: Springfield, PA

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Back in Town

It's nice to have Sci-Fi Channel's EUREKA back for a while. It's a fun show.

But, damn, am I awaiting the season finale of Doctor Who. When an episode has the title "Journey's End," with all the major cliff-hangers we have going into this one, the ominous gets turned up to eleven. 

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just who are the big kids, anyway?

Maybe I'm just a smug, arrogant bastard with nothing but attitude to support my opinions. I mean, that's wholly possible and I'm not about to deny that it is. But the fact is that it bugs the Hell out of me when I see (never mind have to watch) someone doing things the wrong way.

Well, to be honest, it doesn't always bug me. There are times it quite amuses me. If it has to do with theatre, though, it's almost certain that it won't be one of those times.

Some context: During the soft weeks at my full-time job, I picked up a side-gig at Playpenn, this great little mini-festival of new plays in Philly. They're workshopped for a few rehearsals, then presented as staged readings. I'm serving as technical director for the Playground, one of the two spaces Playpenn uses at the Adrienne Theatre. As these are supposed to be staged readings, one would expect them to involve minimal tech. That has not always been the case; hence this post.

The basics are already done: lights were hung and focused before we began working in the space; it's a predetermined repertory plot shared by all the shows in my space, with a maximum of two refocusable specials, so focus was pretty much a one-shot deal. Enough spare instruments were available to allow me to actually hang all the specials as individual units, so rather than re-focus from show to show, I just jump on a stepladder and re-circuit to the appropriate instrument. At this point, a day or two from performance, there are only a few sound cues. For the most part, I've been sitting in on rehearsals, waiting to answer questions or respond to needs, and getting to know the shows.

On the readings which involve an appropriately basic amount of tech, I don't have much to do. Mostly I sit and watch the rehearsal process, which is a bit unusual since the text is still in flux. In one case, I've found that engaging and educational. Watching the different ways the three actors in the show adjust to day-to-day changes in the script is interesting; they're three distinct ways. And it's educational to see how the playwright adjusts in response to things revealed in seeing the show on its feet, even in this spare book-in-hand performance.

And then there are the shows that are fighting the reality of their being staged readings. Rather, I ought to say, the shows whose directors are fighting or just plain ignoring the realities of the fact that they're staged readings. Granted, some of the plays, those whose narrative involves a lot of physicality, are not themselves particularly amenable to the stylized limits of book-in-hand performance. Those plays challenge the director to make decisions about what to attempt to convey in limited performed physicality, what gets read by an offstage narrator, and what just gets skipped. Those can be tough decisions, and it's frustrating to watch a director who lacks the conviction to commit to their choices, or the guts to choose in the first place.

You end up with a reading that takes place on a bare stage cluttered with an assortment of "necessary" props and orphan scenic elements; actors wear pieces suggestive of costumes; the occasional light or sound cue floats in painfully evident isolation, a statement without a vocabulary. Nothing is consistent throughout. The poor actors are stuck mixing mime and literal props, juggling the latter with loose leaf scripts in binders or flopping pages held together with a binder ring or two. The end result feels -- to me, at least -- a bit half-assed. Worse, it gives the impression of being distrustful of the audience's imagination. I think I'd prefer a straight-up no-frills reading: actors on stools or chairs, sitting behind music stands with the script, performing with essential narration read aloud. It shows trust; trust in the audience; trust in the words.

And I think an absence of trust is an aspect of the sort of situation that frustrates me most. This isn't limited to a staged reading situation. I have to sit through it all the time in rehearsals for full productions. And it drives me nuts. Simply and harshly put, it's this: watching "directors" who can't direct Direct.

On a purely pragmatic level, it's an offensive lack of consideration for any sort of time management. When this gets really bad, you can tell by watching the actors; they disengage whenever they're not directly involved; it would be unreasonably and pointlessly tiring to maintain a constant attentive presence. The stage manager looks at her watch, flips ahead through pages, looks at the time again, and sighs. The tech folks thank God for wi-fi, go online and post on their blogs. And when the director is finally informed of how little time remains in the rehearsal, he gushes distress, despair and confusion that we didn't get to all the scenes he'd meant to work on.

But what frustrates me most of all is the fact that almost all the time they're wasting is actually wasted. They work the same bits over and over and over again, without any real progress, often without any clear sense of what they're working toward. Most of the time they don't outright set a goal, and when they do they never trust the actors to find their way to it on their own. Sometimes they're able to elucidate the perceived problem they want to solve, which can makes things even more maddening for me when it's obvious that the stuff they're doing does not at all address the problem as they've expressed it. They might actually be seeing a real problem, but haven't a sense of its causes or a clue how to move towards a solution. And that is, I think, because they don't know how the thing they're tinkering with works. 

These are, almost consistently, directors with what Huck Finn might describe as "a terrible lot of book-learnin'." Their understanding of theatre is entirely academic. Everything is in abstract. They don't act, have never acted, and don't really know or understand acting. They're not writers, or at least not playwrights, themselves. They don't know or understand any of the technical aspects of stagecraft (but nevertheless have definite opinions, regardless of the fact that they usually haven't the vocabulary to communicate then, and try to concern themselves with tech to an extent so inappropriate that it would be embarrassing if they had any sense of their own ineptitude). The truth is, they know nothing except How To Direct. Which means, frankly, they know nothing. Their attempts at actual stagecraft are like a literary critic trying to fix a broken printing press. They may have a sense of what they want to see in the end product, but they've no idea how it gets there or where it comes from. And they are willfully oblivious to the limits of their knowledge, as well as to the possibility of anyone else's possessing any. They never -- never -- simply ask for something and trust that you know your job well enough to make it happen. They rarely are trusting enough to risk putting a problem on the table and being open to other people's takes on it or ideas about solutions. The one How To Direct thing they don't know how to do is direct. It's as though they've a wholly isolated definition of the job. They seem unaware of and resistant to the idea that what a director does is direct -- make sure that everyone involved is headed in the same direction. A good director doesn't control; he directs; he keeps a group of people with divers talents unified. You don't tell the herd how to walk, you just keep them together and moving in the same direction. When a really good director is on his game, the destination doesn't even need to be clearly defined -- you discover it when you get there.

But that's not the case with these book-learnin' Directors. They talk about process, but they don't trust it. They act like architects when what they need to be is gardeners. Lacking an understanding of how things operate, they start fiddling with things that may have no relation to the thing they want to change. They keep flipping the tape cassette over, pressing play, fast-forwarding, pressing rewind, flipping the cassette again, trying to get the thing to play Mozart when all's that recorded on the tape is Queen's Greatest Hits.

I like Queen. I like Mozart. But no amount of tinkering with the one is going to get you the other. And watching someone try with ignorant determination to make that happen is just plain painful.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Check, check... is this thing on?

A bit ago, Rob blogged this list of 100 books. It's popping up here and there. Like so much else on the web, its origins are murky. But, being the bibliophile and unrepentant English Major that I am, I had to comment in some way.

There are a number of problems with this list. For one, I can't see any discernable order to the thing. Pride and Prejudice at #1? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory above Les Miserables? Then there're the couple of "repeats" - listing a group of books and then listing a single work out of that group. Classic interweb sloppiness.

Still, I'm starting with the list as I found it on Rob's site and elsewhere.

Books I've read are in bold; books I intend to read are in italics; books which I intend to read and own, but haven't got to yet, are in blue italics. (There are an alarming number of that last class, owing to the years of my inveterate used book sale attendance.) I'll toss in a rating of affection, too, I guess; that's my fondness for the book, which may not always correspond with my opinion of its importance.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen ***
2 The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien *****
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte ****
4 Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling *** to ***** depending on the book
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee ****
6 The Bible (I've read bits, but not enough to bold it. I'll probably never read the whole thing, though. One can only bear so many begats.)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell (I may have read this in school. I know an awful lot about it. But I cannot recall actually having read it.)
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
(I'm saying recorded books count, here and elsewhere, so long as the recordings are unabridged.)
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

11 Little Women - Louisa M. Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
(A gaping lacuna in my reading; I think there may even be an old book-sale copy somewhere around my house, waiting...)
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
(A cop-out, indeed. Why not The Complete Works of Jane Austen? With the exception of Northanger Abby, I think they're all here.I've read more than the typical selection of the plays, some many times, and a good number of the sonnets, but I am not trudging through all the histories just for the sake of "completeness." I'm bolding it anyway.)
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien *****

17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger ****

19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell (I have my father's copy, but doubt I'll ever actually read it.)
22 The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
*****("and so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past")
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams ****

26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh *****

27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll (I've never understood the appeal. I love the doggerel verse, but the books themselves...)
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
(I don't know how I never read this when I was a kid. Maybe I was put off by a frog on the cover.)
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

33 The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis

34 Emma - Jane Austen

35 Persuasion - Jane Austen ***

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis
(And here we have the first of the odd "repeats." I'm bolding it as well, though, as it's one of the Narnia books I'm certain I've read more than once.)
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - A.A. Milne ***

41 Animal Farm - George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
(WTF?!? What is this doing here? It's bolded, though, because I listened to it unabridged.)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(I ought to give Garcia Marquez another shot. I've begun this book at least twice, set it aside "until I was more in that mode," and let it lie. I think I still have my copy somewhere...)
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
(This and Cider House Rules are the two important Irvings I've yet to read; I own copies of both.)
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins (Whoa. Collins is tough going. I tried The Moonstone years ago, without success. He's important from an historical perspective; as to the innate value of his individual novels... I cannot say.)
46 Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
(There's a college literature professor out there who thinks I read this, and I very well may have - much of that course is a blur...)
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding

50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens ****

58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck ****

62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
****(For a while this was my give-it-to-friends book. Rob, to whom I think I gave it, speaks truely: "Seriously. Fucking. Good.")
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold (Someone at work enthused about this recently...)
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas (Why this and not Man in the Iron Mask? Who knows. Musketeers come later, I see.)
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
(I've had the same copy since high school. Someday...)
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
(Rough seas reading Melville, but this is the one to sail. I used to have a list somewhere of the chapters that are just whaling practice in detail but don't advance the plot and are thus safe to skim/skip.)
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
*** (Either this or Christmas Carol was the first Dickens I read, when I was a kid. At the time, I saw it as a cool adventure story for Oliver, and I wanted very much to be the Artful Dodger.)
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
(Definitely worth it if you've any affection for the whole muddled Dracula mythos. Surprisingly sophisticated, and very much a 19th Century novel. There's a good unabridged recording, with different readers for the different narrators.)
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
(I read it once, with help from a seminar/support group. The second time through hasn't gone as well...)
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - A.S. Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web – E.B. White *****

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(Does this mean everything? I haven’t read everything…)
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams ****

95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
(I’ve been camping under that banner for several years now, but still haven’t read the book. At least I own a copy now…)
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute (no, but I read On the Beach...)
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
***** (The Narnia Abberation repeats itself... But at least it let me express affection for this play in particular.)
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Snooping around after the source of that list, I came upon a few other similar lists on the web. There were some notable things absent from that big list but included on others:

My Ántonia - Willa Cather ***
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
*** (If ‘t were me, I’d say Something Wicked This Way Comes, but taking the long view it should be this. Add The Martian Chronicles, too; it can slide right in where we take out The Five People You Meet In Heaven.)
The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
*** (Pick another if you like – House of Mirth, maybe? Just not Ethan Frome.)
The Call of the Wild - Jack London
(Or perhaps White Fang? London ought to be in there somewhere.)
The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett
**** (For a while, this was my give-it-to-friends book. The kind of novel you inhabit.)
Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson (Toss in Jekyll & Hyde, too, if there’s room.)
The Stand - Stephen King
(Not my favorite of the King canon, but I guess it’s either this or The Shining. Any other King candidates?)
The Magus - John Fowles
*** (I suppose it’s a little lame to point to a book that’s forty years old as a “modern novel,” but Fowles’ novel is so exemplary of what the form began to do in the latter half of the century. An ambitious work which almost consistently succeeds.)
Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake
(I’ve known little about this – I’m assuming the list meant the entire trilogy – but have been curious for years. I finally found all three books at a used book store a year or so ago, only to find out shortly after that they’re back in print. Heaven alone knows when I’ll get ‘round to them.)

My own list addition:
The Princess Bride - William Goldman ***** (If I need to justify it, I’ll point to the wonderful narrator games Goldman plays. The funniest, most heartwarming meta-text you’ll ever read.)

Friday, July 04, 2008

How Not To Begin A Fantasy Film Franchise

I just watched The Golden Compass. I'm sort of glad that I didn't see this in the theaters, as I'd intended to. It's a sumptuous film, visually, and seeing it on a big screen might have blunted my opinion of it. On the little 14" screen on which I watched it, none of that grandeur was able to impress, and there's little else in the film capable of making much of an impression in any venue of presentation.

I've read Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy (listened to, actually, in the very good unabridged readings), and Chris Weitz's film of this first book captures none of the magic in Pullman's writing. Yes, the film has a lot of rich visuals, but it fails to ever really create a genuine sense of place. Likewise with characters; Golden Compass is a journey story, and much of its fun is rooted in the characters Lyra meets, and sometimes allies with, along the way. Although usually well cast, those characters are given no chance to distinguish themselves in this largely expository film.

In one of the odder adaptation choices I've ever seen, Weitz opts to end his movie short of the end of the book. The effect is that the film sort of sputters quickly to a close without much closure, and screams "next installment in the works" as you're pondering whether you'd devote the time to that next installment.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Ice is civilization.

By association, it's logical to say that so too is air conditioning. Perhaps not civilization, but civilized.

I'm civilized again.

My credit card may be wishing I were a bit more primitive.

Caesar Months Suck

July. August.

In the five-day forecast on both my desktop weather Widgets, none of the daily temperatures is below 80°F. Most are in the high 80s. Several tip 90°. Hell, even the nighttime lows are all above 65°; that's warmer than the highest I heat my home in the winter months.

Everyone has a right to their opinion. My opinion is this sucks.

I don't like hot weather. I don't do well in hot weather. When the temperature gets within 20° of my natural internal body temperature (which is around 97°), I begin to aestivate. To complicate things yet more, there's a point soon into the 80s when I can't get comfortable and can't sleep.

Why am I kvetching about this? Well, other than maintaining a long-standing tradition, I have an immediate motivation -- my air condition has died.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been able to keep at least part of the house below 80°. Right now, it's 82° outside and there's a 1° difference between that and and the thermometer on the bookshelf next to me. The sun hasn't hit this side of the house yet.

Even now, I can feel my wallet shift in my pocket as my credit card cringes, but there may not be an option.