Friday, October 16, 2009

Risky Business

Back in the mid-1980s, when the Reagan administration began a series of cutbacks in arts funding, many nonprofits began to trim their sails as they braced for stormy fundraising seasons. After a decade of adventurous programming, nervous opera impresarios started to fall back on a steady diet of La Boheme, Carmen, and Die Fledermaus -- surefire box office attractions that were guaranteed to fill seats.

Back when he was General Director of the Tulsa Opera, Ed Purrington once described a meeting in which an accountant who was a member of his board of directors proposed mounting a production of Aida without any sets or costumes. Convinced that the audience would be impressed with such cost-cutting ideas, the accountant was surprised to see how quickly his idea was shot down.

While the current fiscal crisis is not quite the same as the Reagan era's trickle-down economics, at least the person occupying the White House is a strong supporter of the arts. At a bare minimum, President Obama understands that, because they are so labor intensive, the arts are one of the nation's most effective economic engines.

With so many nonprofits begging for money, it's always interesting to see who is willing to stick their necks out and swim against the tide. This discussion between the two co-artistic directors of San Francisco's Boxcar Theatre, Nick Olivero and Peter Matthews, says a lot about taking risks in a down economy.

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Written by Mary Gragen Rogers and Sara Beth Parks, Meet The Samsas is this season's big foray into the world of puppet theatre. According to Boxcar's publicity material:
"In Meet The Samsas, we have created a theatrical expression that is unexplored territory. It is the convergence (and divergence) of puppet theatre, conventional theatre, and televised media. Told with hand-carved wooden string puppets, the Samsa family finds itself at the center of a reality television show. Under constant surveillance, acquiescing to the whims of the ever-present but unseen Director, the eldest son awakens to find himself transformed into a monstrous bug.

Inspired by Kafka's 1912 novella The Metamorphosis, the ordeal unfolds (and the family unravels) in front of millions of viewers in an absurd world where the camera is always watching and the television is always on. The term Kafkaesque has come to be synonymous with small, anonymous individuals trapped in an existential nightmare from which there is no escape or awakening. Not only are the puppets trapped in this world, but so are the puppeteers. None of the characters are aware of what's happening to them or inside of them.

Photo by: Peter Lui

In the character of Gordon, the eyes alone are able to express the soul of a man transformed into an insect and unite it with expression unique in its movement. He has the heart of a man and the physical expression of the insect. His sister, Grace, is in the middle of her own metamorphosis. She realizes what the cameras can do for her (as empty as it is) and is willing to do anything it takes for fame. Although Mr. Samsa invited the cameras in to save his family from debt -- and is desperate for them to keep the show on the air -- Mrs. Samsa realizes (too late) the love she has for her children. The cameras create the illusion of social relationships with no real connection. Thus, it is television that truly celebrates the family's tragedy."
In the following video clip, Parks describes what she and her colleagues were hoping to achieve in Meet The Samsas:

In theory, that sounds great. Unfortunately, the opening night performance was a sorry mess due to numerous technical glitches. One gimmick involved hooking the bug puppet up to a webcam so that the audience could see the world through Gordon's eyes as he moved around his apartment (following his transformation into a cockroach). Not only did this setup continue to malfunction, the bug puppet lost two of its legs during the course of the performance!

Following the controversy that erupted after some choreographed mischief between Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake during the halftime show at the 38th Superbowl on February 1, 2004, I never thought I would live to see the day when a cockroach would suffer an equally humiliating wardrobe malfunction. But, as the old saying goes, "You live long enough, anything can happen!"

The larger problem exposed by opening night's technical nightmares is the crucial difference between how time works on film and in live theatre. Traditional marionette theatre involves very delicate puppets that must be carefully manipulated. A marionette crossing a stage takes much longer than it would for a Muppet (which can move much faster and with far greater freedom).

Photo by: Peter Lui

Every time a marionette had to be carefully maneuvered into position -- or a video track locked in place and would not play properly -- the performance suffered another setback. Unlike in television (or movies like The Truman Show) where on-air dead time is to be avoided at all costs), there was nothing for the audience to do but sit there and wait. Rather than a death by a thousand paper cuts, the opening night of Meet The Samsas was a carefully monitored death seen on one stalled monitor after another.

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Across town at the Alcazar Theatre, the management of 42nd Street Moon launched a new series of musical "salons" designed to broaden their appeal and, hopefully, the demographics of their core audience. While the company is noted for semi-staged revivals of "lost musicals," the salon format gives artistic directors Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhoads a chance to showcase the work of composers and lyricists who have made significant contributions to the American musical theatre.

Their first salon event, I Feel A Song Coming On, was dedicated to the great lyricist Dorothy Fields, with Dave Dobrusky on the piano (Dobrusky also supplied the evening's vocal arrangements). With Cady Huffman (MacKellan's old friend from Santa Barbara) acting as narrator, a cast of four artists familiar to 42nd Street Moon audiences (Klea Blackhurst, Bill Fahrner, Darlene Popovic, and Alexandra Kaprelian) escorted "salon goers" on a musical tour through the Fields catalogue.

Dorothy Fields

It's easy to take for granted the deftly-crafted ease with which lyrics written by Dorothy Fields flow from a singer's mouth. As Fields herself noted:
"I wrote the words to 'I Feel A Song Coming On' but I don't believe a word of it. A song just doesn't come on. I've always had to tease it out, squeeze it out, and anyone that tells you that a song is something that's an inspiration (I hate that word) or a magic spark, or an IBM machine gets you going, has got to prove that one to me. It's hard slave labor. Ask anyone who writes. It's slave labor and I love it."
In 1937, Fields won the Oscar for best song for The Way You Look Tonight (from the film Swing Time). In 1959, Redhead won the Tony award for best musical (Fields wrote the lyrics and also contributed to the book). Some of her lyrics are masterful creations, especially "Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10" (written with Cy Coleman).

When one examines some of the great lyrics Fields wrote while working with a variety of composers, it's astonishing to see how -- over the course of nearly 40 years in the business -- she remained optimistic and young at heart. Among the standards she wrote with her first partner, Jimmy McHugh, were:
For Jerome Kern, she supplied the lyrics to hit songs like:
Late in life, Fields teamed up with composer Cy Coleman on Sweet Charity (1966) and Seesaw (1973), supplying the lyrics to:
As Broadway historian Ethan Mordden notes:
"Fields was a stayer. She started in Blackbirds of 1928 and was still at it forty-five years later in Seesaw. Yet hers was an ever-youthful talent, smartass but sensitive and wondering. This wonderful talent may be the only lyricist in musical theatre history who sounded more youthful as time ran on. In Sweet Charity, Fields has the ear of a teenage prodigy.

Moreover, like Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim (but unlike most Golden Age lyricists and especially unlike Cole Porter and E.Y. Harburg), Fields changes voice from character to character. She's great with slightly demented women of no education, such as Ethel Merman's Jeannette Adair in Stars in Your Eyes or Shirley Booth's roles in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. and By the Beautiful Sea. Charity would be right up Fields' alley, as we hear in "You Should See Yourself," Charity's eulogy of the boyfriend who pushes her into the lake. He's a creep, but he's her creep; so she's glowing, building, praising - especially his dressing style, that 'college-type, rah-rah-dee-da tweed.' I ask you, is even Fred Ebb sharper?"
Fields penned some beautiful lyrics to songs by Arthur Schwartz -- "Hang Up," "He Had Refinement," "Make The Man Love Me" -- as well as this great comic number written for Ethel Merman in 1939 entitled "A Lady Needs A Change."
"Just one brand new man to love me
Makes a brand new woman of me
I like variation.

There’s a pounding in my ears,
I’m blushing after seven years.
That’s just good circulation.

I buy a dress on Monday
The dress looks great on Monday
It’s on my cook by Sunday
A lady needs a change.

I know my future course is
A land with fresh resources
Where hay is not for horses
A lady needs a change.

Tries to tell us why we’re so complex.
I say, Mr. Ellis, now what the hell is
Scientific sex?

Let’s say you like potatoes
And that’s all you’ll eat: potatoes.
But one night you try tomatoes!
A lady needs a change.

When castles start to crumble.
When he begins to fumble.
When there’s no rough and tumble
A lady needs a change.

That great demand is dying
So is that great supplying
And when you both stop trying
A lady needs a change.

His conversation floors ya,
Gentle nausea
That is all you feel.
How you wish you were
Just for one good meal!

When all his clothes look frowsy
By ten at night, he’s drowsy.
By two, boy is he lousy!
A lady needs a change.”
The evening provided a joyful romp through 40 years of Broadway show tunes with occasional wry twists (Bill Fahrner as one of the taxi dancers singing "Big Spender"). While Fahrner and Popovic have long delighted audiences in 42nd Street Moon productions, I was strangely touched listening to Klea Blackhurst's voice. Although known as a belter who can take on Merman's repertoire without batting an eyelash, when Blackhurst has a chance to deliver more lyrical moments there is a magic to her voice that is totally disarming.

While the sound in this clip is a bit muffled, enjoy this gem published on YouTube by Dancers Over 40 (a group of performers who have been documenting a treasure trove of Broadway history). Marge Beddow (who was Gwen Verdon's understudy in Redhead) performs the tongue-twisting "Erbie Fitch's Twitch" with lyrics by Fields to music by Albert Hague. Note the influence of the rising young director and choreographer (Bob Fosse) who subsequently became Verdon's husband.

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When I first started seeing trailers for a new film by Michel Orion Scott and Rupert Isaacson (journalist, founder and director of the Indigenous Land Rights Fund, producer of The Horse Boy, and father of Rowan Isaacson), I was eager to see it. Months later, as I watched a press screening of this movie, which documents a family's expedition to Mongolia in the hope that modern-day shamans might be able to help their autistic son, I couldn't help but wonder: How the hell does a family with an autistic child pay for this kind of extravagance, much less secure the underwriting to fund a major documentary?

The answer to my question was found in a rather long-winded director's statement from Scott:
"I first met Rupert Isaacson at a book talk he gave on the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana. Rupert spoke passionately about the past, present, and future of a people who many anthropologists believe to be the first human society, and who are now on the brink of extinction. Immediately, I felt a stirring to help. I had just finished working on a large-scale Hollywood film shot in Austin, Texas, and was burned out by the frantic pace of the previous three months. I wanted desperately to spend more time with nature and to work for a cause I believed in. I took a bold step forward and told Rupert, 'I want to help. I work in film and want to offer my services to the cause, paid or not.' We began to talk about the possibility of creating a film about the Bushmen, one that would help them in their fight for survival.

Filmmaker Michel Orion Scott

A few months into pre-production, I was sitting with Rupert in his kitchen. Our conversation paused for a moment and then he said, 'Michel, there is something else I would like you to consider.' Rupert told me about his son Rowan, who had been diagnosed with autism two years earlier. He and his wife (Kristin Neff) had tried virtually every form of treatment known to either traditional or alternative medicine. All of them produced disappointing results. Finally, Rupert had decided to take Rowan to Mongolia and travel on horseback throughout the country in search of the mysterious shamans he was somehow sure could help heal his son. He asked me to come with them and record their trip. With a gulp, I said 'Yes, of course.' How could I pass up such an opportunity? The Horse Boy, the account of the Isaacsons’ incredible journey, is a piece of real life magical realism. It has been my dream as a filmmaker to be able to work with such material. At the same time, because the concept of the film was so powerful, I spent many nervous moments wondering how I was going to capture the real story.

Photo: O. Rufus Lovett

Just the logistics of the shoot seemed overwhelming. Would I be able to ride with a camera in one hand and reins in the other across the rugged and isolated Mongolian landscape? How, on our shoestring budget, would we manage to put together a film as inspiring and beautiful as the idea for the journey itself? I would also be taking on the responsibility of exploring one of the most challenging medical issues of our time, the complex and puzzling disorder that is autism. What a task: to try to explain what seems unexplainable even to the experts in the field! To say that I didn’t know what to anticipate is an understatement but, of course, no one could.

So off we went (Rowan, Rupert, Kristin, our crew members Jeremy Bailey and Justin Hennard, and I) into the magnificent, unknowable land of Genghis Khan, where horseback riding started, where the word Shaman (“one who knows”) originated, and where shamanism is -- even today -- the official state religion. As I galloped across the countryside, lurching from side to side and back to front, attempting to keep up with the family while holding the camera as steady as I could, it all seemed surreal and impossible. I was thrown from my horse, contracted giardia and faced each day with a level of aching soreness beyond what I had ever experienced. And all of this for a film? Yes, but even more for the sake an autistic boy whose parents were willing to go literally to the ends of the earth to find healing for their son. To me, this is the true beauty of the story. The mysterious shamans, incredible landscapes, and harrowing ascents on nearly wild horses are all a backdrop for the story of a family willing to transcend logic and science in order to find a way into their son’s world.

Photo: O. Rufus Lovett

As I realized when the Isaacson family took their first step onto that plane bound for Mongolia, this was the most important message that we could share with the world -- no matter what the outcome of our trip. That knowledge allowed me to relax and let the story unfold as it would and did, in ways that I would never have predicted. As I reflect on the night that Rupert and I first spoke about traveling to Mongolia, it still amazes me that this profound and transformative journey all started in a kitchen, with a little boy who seemed beyond help, and his father’s gut feeling."
No matter how many films one sees about childhood illnesses, nothing creates a knot in one's stomach like the sight of an autistic child caught in a tantrum with no end in sight. With more children diagnosed each year than with cancer, diabetes, Down syndrome and AIDS combined, current estimates are that nearly 4 million children in the United States could be diagnosed with autism in the next 10 years.

While this documentary goes to great length to include input from experts in the field of autism, it was Isaacson's previous experience as a horse trainer that caused him to notice a most unusual interaction between his autistic son and a grumpy old mare named Betsy. Rowan's uncanny ability to communicate with animals proved to be an important key that would eventually allow the boy to communicate with people.

As a result of what was learned from Rowan's interaction with horses, Isaacson helped create The Horse Boy Foundation, which runs a small learning and equestrian center near Elgin, Texas whose credo is as follows:
"Our mission is to bring horses and the children that need them together. Pure and simple. We bring special needs children (mainly kids on the autism spectrum) and ‘neuro-typical’ (i.e. ‘normal’) children together, using the horse as a social nexus. We have no specific program -- each child is catered to according to their own needs. Our horses are highly adaptable. We believe strongly that special needs kids, and kids on the autism spectrum, can go way beyond mere equine therapy. We believe they can truly ride and should have the opportunity to do so."
While The Horse Boy provides many wonderful moments, it doesn't hide the anguish of having an autistic child, the constant hope for accomplishing something as simple as potty training, or the rigors of traveling around the Mongolian steppes in search of the reindeer herders who live in the high country. The documentary forces science to confront the healing powers of shamanism head on and accept the fact that strange and wonderful things can happen outside the scope of Western medicine.

An intensely emotional documentary filled with moments of insight, flashes of sick and twisted humor, and some passages that may leave the greatest cynic dumbstruck with wonder, The Horse Boy cuts to the quick without any of the usual authoritarianism found in so many other medical documentaries. Here's the trailer:

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