Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Facing Up To The Bottom Line

Today's hookup culture is a far cry from the days when dating was fraught with trepidation, when going steady actually meant making a commitment, and when people were thrilled to marry their high school sweethearts. As a result, these two clips from How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Company almost seem like time capsules from a lost civilization.

Many people think that the Internet ruined everything. From online forums to chat rooms, from Skyping to swiping, people now shop for sex as easily as ordering in a pizza. In her fascinating op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy, Moira Weigel argues that:
"Courtship has always been dictated by changes in the market. People are constantly told that we must be flexible and adaptable in order to succeed. On the dating market, everyone competes for him or herself. Many of us treat relationships like unpaid internships: We cannot expect them to lead to anything long-term, so we use them to get experience. If we look sharp, we might get a free lunch. Is it surprising that these values are reshaping how many of us approach sex and love?

Single people today tend to work longer hours than they would have in the Norman Rockwell, soda-fountain era that many people seem to have in mind when they get misty-eyed about 'traditional' dating. Dating now applies the logic of capitalism to courtship. The good news is that dating is not the same thing as love. And, as anyone who has ever been in love can attest, the laws of supply and demand do not control our feelings."
One need look no further than the porn industry (which has usually been the first to embrace new technology) to see how far we've come. The recent announcement that the Tearoom Theatre (located in the heart of San Francisco's Tenderloin District) was closing its doors seemed like the final nail in the coffin.

Thanks to technology, there is now a switch that can channel consumers of every niche. Lap dances have been replaced with videochat sessions for which consumers can purchase virtual tokens to pay for private chats with "models." Flying solo is no longer about getting a pilot's license.

Not only has the language of sex merged with the language of capitalism, the business world now relies on a linguistic vagueness which can cover for a wealth of passive aggression. From vertical integration to planned obsolescence, from downsizing and offshoring to effecting lateral transfers or reassigning certain tasks from employees to independent contractors, the very means by which business people communicate has been stripped of emotion and sterilized to the point where "disposable" human beings are regarded as kind of the collateral damage necessary to strengthen the next quarter's earnings.

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Consider the business goal of "The Company" depicted by Julie Katz in her brilliant and smartly underplayed monologue, Grey Matter, which recently received its world premiere from The Marsh in San Francisco. Proudly boasting that its mission statement is "To help improve an aspect of an industry," the company pays its employees well, but never loses fact that they are expendable assets.

Julie Katz stars in Grey Matter (Photo by: Serena Morelli)

Developed with David Ford, directed by Lexi Diamond, and performed by Julie Katz, Grey Matter wrestles with such urgent issues as whether the artisanal hot chocolate machine should remain near the fourth floor conference room in the Marketing Department or be relocated to the building's 63rd floor. Among Katz's characters are:
  • The annoyingly perky employee who balances announcements that "Casual Fridays" have been eliminated and Saturday work hours have been pushed over to Sunday with warnings about people who are stealing office supplies to use at home and stern admonishments about the need to place new rolls of paper towels in their proper dispenser instead of just leaving them anywhere in the bathroom.
  • Sara, the new member of the Payroll Team who begins her employment trying to help people who have not been paid on time because they failed to properly submit their expenses, but ends up trying to calm the nerves of frantic employees who have heard rumors of a sudden layoff.
Julie Katz stars in Grey Matter (Photo by: Serena Morelli)
  • The member of the legal staff who would really like to explore his artistic talent but has reached a socioeconomic level where he couldn't possibly afford the risks inherent in living an artistic lifestyle.
  • An artist who can barely pay for food while holding down multiple jobs, but boasts about having the kind of intellectual, emotional, and artistic freedom that her friends with steady jobs envy.
  • The IT whiz-kid wearing with a wireless headset who keeps doing biceps curls with a set of dumbbells while fielding tech support calls by instructing people to restart their computers to see if that will solve their problem. Because his job will always be secure, the IT-guy has no interest in joining in a protest against layoffs or caring about any of his fellow employees.
Julie Katz stars in Grey Matter (Photo by: Serena Morelli)

Billed as "an innovatively disruptive and beta-tested comedy on corporate culture," Grey Matter's strength lies in Ms. Katz's wry ability to perfectly capture the vague and useless ways in which language is deployed in today's tech culture and deliver a carefully-paced performance that always underplays the tensions about to erupt in the lives of her characters. In an auspicious debut as a playwright, Katz displays a keen mastery of contemporary business language, character development, and an ability to find the simplest human elements peeking out of the drab, dehumanizing environment of a large multinational corporation's offices.

Julie Katz stars in Grey Matter
(Photo by: Serena Morelli)

An interesting observation about the opening night audience, which was filled with an audience of mostly theatre-friendly Millennials like one would expect to see at Pianofight and the San Francisco Olympians Festival. When American Conservatory Theatre was preparing to unveil the renovated Strand Theatre, the company's Artistic Director, Carey Perloff, wrote:
"We have a lot of questions to ask as we connect with tech companies surrounding our new theater. Questions like: Tell us what, if anything, would encourage you to want to walk into a new 300-seat theater one evening (or afternoon, or lunchtime, or midnight) to see a play? What would inspire you, despite your fourteen-hour-a-day work cycles, to take a shot on live performance? How could we connect all you creative 20-something programmers and software developers in the neighborhood with our equally creative 20-something MFA actors, such that eventually you all feel you are one peer group, cheering each other on and looking out for each other's success? Would it be of interest that many of the plays being commissioned were based on San Francisco stories and created by local writers? Or that the Strand was a chance to see major players up close and intimately? Or that there will be downtown high school kids writing their own monologues and stories and collaborating with A.C.T.'s artists in the black box theater upstairs in an attempt to survive their tough teen years and create lives for themselves inspired by exactly the kind of creative work happening in the tech sphere you inhabit?"
At the time, I noted that:
"An important point for Perloff to consider is that, while A.C.T. is indeed well-funded, has a highly-regarded MFA program for actors, and boasts a substantial subscription base, it's not the only game in town. Its two new venues on Market Street are welcome additions that will provide plenty of new opportunities for artists and audiences alike. But to think that the new tech population is going to be drawn to A.C.T.'s productions to hear 'downtown high school kids creating their own monologues' is a bit naive."
The hard truth is that (largely thanks to the social media platforms on which they work and communicate with friends and family), today's tech sector is far more likely to attend new works written by their peers and professional colleagues. As one compares the local scene, it's hard to ignore a comparison to the current drama playing out within the Democratic Party. Like Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, ACT seems very much like the establishment player with an older constituency. By contrast, The Marsh, Playground, Pianofight, Ray of Light Theatre, San Francisco Theatre Pub, and the EXIT Theatre seem to be capturing the enthusiasm and support of an newer audience similar to the crowds of enthusiastic young voters supporting Bernie Sanders.

Performances of Grey Matter continue at The Marsh through June 4 (click here for tickets).

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It's rare for current affairs to be keenly focused on American currency. However, 2016 has been abuzz with talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda's immensely popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Hamilton. United States Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's announcement that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill has also generated plenty of news.

John Bennardo's new film, The Two Dollar Bill Documentary (which will be screened at SFDoc Fest in June) has to be one of the most delightful documentaries I've seen in a long time. Filled with testimonials from collectors and ordinary people who profess their undying love for the rarely-seen $2 bill, it is a grand piece of edutainment.

In addition to shedding light on how the bill came into being and how it is manufactured, Bennardo's film offers some stunning samples of the artwork that has graced the $2 bill since 1862, when it was introduced into American currency.

Alexander Hamilton's portrait appeared on the first $2 bill,
which was was issued in 1862 as a Legal Tender Note
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Two Dollar Bill Documentary is chock full of fascinating trivia. Did you know that:
  • State banks were the first institutions allowed to print $2 bills. However, the further one traveled from the bank that issued the bill, the more quickly its value declined. If the bank failed, the bill instantly became worthless.
  • There is an important difference between $2 bills that were printed by the United States of America and those that were printed by the Federal Reserve.
  • There is actually a $3 bill which has become quite a collector's item. Why? On one side, it is identified as a $1 bill while, on the opposite side, it is identified as a $2 bill.
  • Many digitally-programmable vending machines are capable of being set to accept $2 bills.
Winfred Scott Hancock's picture appeared on the 1886 $2
silver certificate (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Bennardo's film also contains some amazing human interest stories.
  • Few people are aware that $2 bills traveled on the Apollo and Gemini space missions and that one bill even made it to the surface of the moon.
  • One man describes how he was arrested and handcuffed at a Best Buy store and taken to jail because the manager and police didn't believe that his $2 bills were real.
  • A widow whose husband died in the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center relates how he proposed to her with a pair of $2 bills, suggesting that by carrying the bills in their wallets, they would always know where they were. Months after 9/11, when she was notified that her husband's wallet and wedding ring had been found, the discovery of a $2 bill within his wallet brought her a surprising amount of joy along with the closure she had yearned for.
Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse appear on the reverse
side of the 1896 $2 "Educational Series" Silver Certificate
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Bennardo's documentary highlights some of the ways in which the $2 bill holds a special place in today's currency:
  • Two dollar bills are often used for fundraising drives for all kinds of interest groups (ranging from nudists to sports teams).
  • The use of $2 bills is a surprisingly popular gimmick among strip clubs and small businesses who want to demonstrate how their money flows through a local economy.
  • Many people consider $2 bills to be good luck charms.

Issued in 1918, this $2 bill featured Thomas Jefferson
on its front and a World War I battleship on its back
(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In describing his experience making the film, Bennardo writes:
“My thought process has changed dramatically since I first decided to make this documentary. Nearly everyone I came in contact with about the film had a $2 bill story to share -- they pulled one out of their wallet or purse or told a touching story about how they got it. When news of the film's production reached the public, I quickly got interview requests for newspapers and radio programs. The film quickly grew in scope. I found myself traveling across the country, from South Florida to Portland, Oregon, to document all of the material.” 
Starting in 1976, John Turnbull's famous 1819 painting entitled
The Declaration of Independence replaced the picture of
Monticello (this one was enhanced by a computer printout)
“The $2 bill is an important part of our nation's economic landscape. It is misunderstood by the public yet, when used, it can do amazing things to connect people. The fact that I was able to thoroughly document the story of this remarkable piece of Americana (combined with how I was able to share my own passions and experiences with the $2 bill) made this the most satisfying project I have ever created.”

The Two Dollar Bill Documentary explains many details about the design and history of the bill (including why the serial numbers on some $2 bills make them more valuable than others and why "replacement notes" have a star next to their serial number). Here's the trailer:

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