Monday, June 22, 2009

Teachable Moments

They say that knowledge is power. But how do we get that knowledge? For some people, it's by trial and error. For others, it's by rote learning. Some may actually enjoy textbooks but, when it comes to new equipment or software, few take the time to read the manual.

Much of today's education comes in the form of a FAQ sheet (which lists frequently asked questions and answers) or a searchable archive of electronic data. What is missing -- and perhaps what people crave most -- is the personal touch that was, for so many years, associated with teaching, mentoring, and learning.

Recently, while watching Penny Arcade workshop a new show at The Marsh called Old Queen, I was struck by her recollection of how, when she was 14 years old, she would take advantage of every opportunity to sit at a table in a gay bar or coffee shop and listen to older gay men converse. "They knew everything about culture, history, fashion, and theater," she explained. "Just by being able to sit at the table and listen to those old queens, your I.Q. was guaranteed to rise by 20%!"

Her comment made me recall a trip to Los Angeles many years ago with my friend Marvin Feldman. Marvin was much younger than me and, following dinner prior to an opera performance one night, said something that really startled me. "I really enjoy having dinner with you and your friends, but it's not easy for me -- I can't just smoke a joint and then sit there trying to look hot," he confided. "I really have to be on my toes and pay careful attention to what's being said."

A peculiar collection of films and plays seen this week made me wonder about how the teachable moments we experience at the hands of friends and mentors show us new ways to approach seemingly insurmountable problems. As I thought about the critical contributions some people have made to my life through their generous mentoring, the lyrics of an old Beatles song flooded my mind:
"What would you do if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song,
And I'll try not to sing out of key.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
I get high with a little help from my friends,
Oh, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends.

What do I do when my love is away?
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you're on your own?
No, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I'm gonna to try with a little help from my friends

Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love.
Could it be anybody? I want somebody to love.

Would you believe in a love at first sight?
Yes, I'm certain that it happens all the time.
What do you see when you turn out the light?
I can't tell you, but I know it's mine.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends.
Oh, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends."
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One of America's most prolific playwrights, Terrence McNally is a frequent contributor to the Bay Area theatre scene. His works have been produced on Bay area stages ranging from the War Memorial Opera House (Dead Man Walking) to Theatre Q in Palo Alto (which is currently staging McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart). Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune was recently produced by the Marin Theater Company and Exit Theatre. Next season, SFPlayhouse will mount a new production of The Full Monty.

An out and proud gay man, McNally has, for the past several years, had a close relationship with San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center. Under Ed Decker's artistic direction, the company has produced Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Ritz, Corpus Christi and the 2005 world premiere of Crucifixion. Next season NCTC will stage a new production of McNally's Master Class. Unfortunately, the production of Some Men (2006) currently being performed at NCTC is a hit-and-miss affair that often feels like a collection of reheated leftovers and throwaway lines from the playwright's previous efforts.

The cast of Some Men (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Some Men begins and ends as a group of gay men watch a modern gay wedding ceremony and comment on its significance. But McNally's play, which covers about 80 years in the history of gay male relationships in America, jumps back and forth between decades with an annoying amount of confusion. As actors keep jumping in and out of roles -- and back and forth between decades -- it becomes difficult to remember who fell in love with whom, whether the relationship lasted, or if the audience should really care. Thankfully, a few dramatic threads that span the course of the play can be understood.
  • A short, bald, and wealthy Jewish businessman carries on a long-term affair with his Irish chauffeur at the family's estate on Long Island.
  • A frustrated, closeted married man decides to break the code of secrecy with his best friend and visit a NYC bathhouse, where he meets a high school librarian from Staten Island. Years, later, when his lover is away at a professional conference, he wonders what in the world librarians could possibly talk about for an entire week.
  • A young gay man tries to find more information about his uncle Archie (a drag queen who stopped into a piano bar across from the Stonewall Inn on a hot and fateful night in June of 1969).
  • A military officer remains clueless about why a close friend of his deceased son has made such an intense effort to attend the funeral.
  • A new generation of idealistic gay male couples eagerly looks forward to raising children.
NCTC's ensemble was filled with many of the usual suspects (familiar faces who have appeared in numerous productions with the company). These included Dann Howard, Tim Redmond, Brandon Finch, P.A. Cooley, George Patrick Scott, Patrick Michael Dukeman, Scott Cox, Matthew Vierling and Christopher Morrell.

While McNally's play tried to show how gay friendships and extended family ties develop and mature over the years, Some Men was far less satisfying than many of the playwright's other works. There's no doubt that McNally can come up with witty, and often scathing lines. This time around he had too much trouble pulling everything together.

* * * * * * * *
In recent years, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (through its New Jewish Filmmaking Project) and Frameline (through its Generations Film Workshop) have been bringing young filmmakers together with professional mentors on projects that involve interviewing senior members of the community as a way of documenting local history and learning about the historical progress made by those who went before them.

One of the shorts programs currently being presented by Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) is labeled Generations: Youth and Elders Making Movies. In an eight-minute short entitled Rainbow Generations Making Films, we watch outtakes from Frameline's 2009 Generations Workshop in which older mentors work with young LGBT filmmakers as they learn what it takes to produce a film in a relatively short period of time.

Far more provocative, however, is Don't Erase My Memory, a 32-minute short by Ally Action in which young Bay area filmmakers interview their elders to learn about the history of gay America that is almost never included in their school's social studies curriculum. Not only do they learn about famous gay people from Walt Whitman to Alan Turing, they learn about the challenges faced by pioneers like Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who founded The Daughters of Bilitis.

The film includes fascinating interviews with former State Senator Sheila Kuehl (whom many will remember from her appearances as Zelda Gilroy in the 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), lesbian author Jewelle Gomez, Chicana feminist, activist, and author Cherrie Moraga, historian Martin Meeker, and Holy Old Man Bull (Marcus Arana), an investigator for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission who also served as a coordinator for San Francisco's Community United Against Violence.

What I found fascinating about this film was not just hearing older gay people describe how important it is for young gay people to have cultural landmarks and role models to aspire to, but to hear a new generation of LGBT people talk about how hurtful it is to have educators dismiss gay history as unimportant or trivialize their interest in important gay figures in literature, science, politics, and the arts.

Back in the late 1960s, when I was attending Brooklyn College, I took a basic music appreciation course during which a supremely disinterested professor played a recording of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida and then said "Well, that's all you really need to know about opera." As a budding young opera queen who had just started to attend performances at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, I was shocked and appalled at his dismissive attitude toward a 400-year-old art form. Films like Don't Erase My Memory go a long way to ensuring that gay and lesbian subject matter doesn't get pushed aside as having no relevance to the lives of LGBT students.

Don't Erase My Memory was created in partnership with the Digital Storytelling Institute of ZeroDivide. It is part of a project born from the California Council for the Humanities' program entitled California Stories: How I See It (Insight From The Next Generation). You can watch a brief trailer here and order a copy of the film here.

* * * * * * * *
There are moments when an accomplished professional can reveal a shortcut that would never have occurred to anyone else. Last week, the San Francisco Symphony offered a semi-staged production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Victorian-era operetta, Iolanthe. Premiered in 1882, this droll political satire has not lost any of its bite. The plot involves the love affair between a young maiden and her boyfriend (who is half mortal and half fairy). While there are plenty of jokes about what it means to be "an influential fairy," perhaps the most cunning stroke of Gilbert's pen can be found in this patch of dialogue near the end of Act II.
"QUEEN OF THE FAIRIES: You have all incurred death; but I can't slaughter the whole company. And yet the law is clear: Every fairy must die who marries a mortal!

LORD CHANCELLOR: Allow me, as an old Equity draftsman, to make a suggestion. The subtleties of the legal mind are equal to the emergency. The thing is really quite simple -- the insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every fairy shall die who doesn't marry a mortal, and there you are, out of your difficulty at once!"
Conducted by George Manahan with a cast that included Joyce Castle (Queen of the Fairies), Sasha Cooke (Iolanthe), Lucas Meachem (Strephon), Sally Matthews (Phyllis), Alfie Boe (Thomas, Earl of Tolloller), Paul Whelan (George, Earl of Mountararat) and Robert Lloyd (Private Willis), the evening occasionally had trouble finding a good sound balance between its amplified and unamplified moments. While the amplification definitely helped Richard Stuart during the Lord Chancellor's patter songs, at other times it threw the performance out of balance.

Matters were hardly helped by Patricia Birch's overly fussy stage direction, which featured a horde of fairies and pages (courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet School). This was defniitely a case where less would have been more. Thankfully, what did manage to shine through were the strength and beauty of Sir Arthur Sullivan's score. Rarely heard in performance these days, Iolanthe sounds quite wonderful when performed with a full symphony orchestra.

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Over in Berkeley, the Aurora Theatre Company has a resounding hit on its hands with its new production of Bob Glaudini's comedy, Jack Goes Boating. Beautifully directed by Joy Carlin, with a superb unit set designed by Melpomene Katakolos (and excellent sound design by Chris Houston), the four memorable characters vividly brought to life by Aurora's tightly-knit ensemble include:
  • Clyde (Gabriel Marin), a limousine driver with a good heart even if he is a bit of a lunkhead. Clyde (who means well and is going to night school to improve his life) often fucks things up because deep down in his heart of hearts he fears that his wife thinks he is inferior.
  • Jack (Danny Wolohan) is a fellow limousine driver painfully aware that he is lacking in certain social skills. After Clyde and Lucy set Jack up on a date with Connie, he determines that what would really impress Connie is if he could cook dinner for her. Because Connie has also suggested that, come summer, they might like to go boating in Central Park, Jack is relying on Clyde for swimming lessons. When given a challenge all his own, Jack is a bit of a perfectionist with a passion for rasta music who loves to listen to the song Rivers of Babylon. He is slow, but methodical. Eager to please, but reluctant to offend.
  • Lucy (Amanda Duarte) is Clyde's wife. She works for an embalmer known as "The Professor." and is probably the most intelligent and grounded character in the play. Although Lucy once had an affair with another man, she has put this memory to rest. Unfortunately, her affair continues to haunt Clyde (who, according to Lucy, conveniently likes to forget about his dalliance with a woman from Poughkeepsie).
  • Connie (Beth Wilmurt) is the nervous assistant working under Lucy at the embalming business. Connie's lack of confidence and low self esteem often mask her genuine sweetness.
Danny Wolohan and Beth Wilmurt (Photo by David Allen)

Lurking in the background is Lucy's ex-lover, a pastry chef whose tasty 10-inch dick has earned him the nickname of "The Cannoli." Glaudini's writing is an absolute delight, capturing the stoned conversations between Clyde and Jack with great wit and rhythm. Jack and Connie's nervous, clumsy seduction scene often has the audience roaring with laughter while Clyde's swimming instructions (delivered in hilarious monologues from above the main playing area) are a masterpiece of macho bravado and unwitting innuendo.

Gabriel Marin and Danny Wolohan (Photo by David Allen)

When the dinner party Jack has labored so hard to cater goes horribly wrong -- and a bitter argument erupts between Clyde and Lucy -- Jack and Connie find shelter in each other's arms. The play ends on a wonderfully lyrical note that leaves the audience collectively qvelling for the two lovers.

Although Philip Seymour Hoffman (who starred as Jack in the original off-Broadway production) is making his directorial debut shooting the film version of Jack Goes Boating, don't wait for the movie to come out. This is very much a piece that should be experienced as live theater and the quartet performing Jack Goes Boating for Aurora Theatre Company does a stunning job with the play. Glaudini's drama is an absolute delight with a surprising amount of tenderness between tokes. You can order tickets here.

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