Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Old Show-and-Grow Technique

Most web browsers include an autocomplete feature which, with each additional keystroke, offers a narrowing range of options based on previous entries. Those who grew up in the computer age will probably assume this to be the natural order of things when it is, in fact, a byproduct of artificial intelligence. From ancient heiroglyphs to various forms of shorthand, symbols have long been used to indicate sounds and ideas in an abbreviated version which can help to tell a story.
Word expansion software programs load a customized database of matching short forms and long forms into a computer's memory. By typing a short form (followed by a period, space, or any other punctuation mark), a transcriptionist can often keep pace with a physician or lawyer's dictation.

When the proper action is completed, the short form expands into the appropriate long form.  For example, "chf" expands to "congestive heart failure." "Tya" may expand to "Thank you again for involving me in the care of this patient.  If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me."

One of the key benefits of using word expansion programs is their ability to increase productivity by saving keystrokes and assuring that the expanded long form is correctly spelled each time it appears in a document. For many secretaries, court reporters, data entry workers, and transcriptionists, the ability to customize a series of short forms (that can then be expanded to long forms) became the first line of defense against such occupational hazards as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injuries.

As a transcriptionist memorizes more short forms, he can develop a rhythm in which keystroke combinations start to feel like musical patterns. Each short form he types releases a burst of text which can mean so much more. With the help of word expansion software, words and phrases flow freely and frequently from his fast-moving fingers.

Simple storytelling is the foundation upon which many short stories are built. To succeed, the author must have an identifiable beginning, middle, and end to his tale. While short stories written by such greats as O. HenryGuy de Maupassant, and Mark Twain have charmed millions of readers, they have also inspired lengthier pieces of art based on the dramatic premise at their core.

Two recent Bay area premieres breathed new life into a series of old short stories with a profound dramatic impact. In one case, a series of three short stories by a long-neglected African-American author were pulled together to form a 90-minute stage presentation. In the other, a silent film (whose contextual nuances had previously been ruined by censors) was brought back to its intended form in a restoration that captured the screenwriter's and director's original artistic vision.

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Born in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston published more than 50 short stories, essays, and plays prior to her death in 1960. Her use of African American dialects was often criticized and, for many years, her writing lost popularity. In 1975, Alice Walker published an article in Ms. Magazine entitled "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston."

In 1989, George C. Wolfe won an Obie for adapting and directing three short stories by Hurston into a play with music entitled Spunk. Featuring music by Chic Street Man, the evening begins with a blues singer setting the mood.

Vocalist Dawn L. Troupe  as Blues Speak Woman
in Spunk (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Jonathan Moscone, who saw and loved the original off-Broadway production, recently brought Spunk to the stage of the California Shakespeare Theater with Tru (AKA Anthony Michael Peterson) and Dawn L. Troupe providing much of the music. Because each play stands very much on its own, it's important not to lump them together as a through-told story, even though the entire evening was directed as a piece by Patricia McGregor.

The opening tale, Sweat, tells the story of a relationship that has long gone sour. Sykes ((L. Peter Callender) is a violent, sadistic man who has grown to detest his wife, Delia (Margo Hall). While Delia works hard (and takes in a white family's clothing to launder and iron at home), Sykes doesn't hesitate to spend his money on other women.

Well aware of Delia's fear of snakes, he brings a caged rattlesnake home to spook her. When Sykes's bad behavior crosses too far over the line, Delia finally gets her revenge. The use of maracas to signal the snake's danger was one of many subtle touches that brought Sweat to a blistering climax. As always, Margo Hall's acting was a joy to behold (this is an artist who can convey layers of emotion with remarkable clarity).

Slang Talk Man (L. Peter Callender) and Jelly (Tyee Tilghman)
in Story in Harlem Slang (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Shorter and much lighter in tone, Story in Harlem Slang tells the tale of two slick Harlem dudes who talk a great game, but don't have much to their name. Decked out in flashy zoot suits designed by Callie Floor, Sweet Back (Aldo Billingslea) and Jelly (Tyee Tilghman) have a cocky way of strutting down the street. Underneath all of that bluster, however, each man is hoping for a handout that will get him something to eat.

Setting their sights on a girl (Omozé Idehenre) who earns her living as a domestic worker, they use every bit of flash at their disposal to try to seduce her into picking up the tab for dinner. But this gal ain't nobody's fool.

Aldo Billingslea, Omozé Idehenre, and  Tyee Tilghman  in
Story in Harlem Slang  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It's obvious why the stylized strutting and great costumes in Story in Harlem Slang made it the high point of the evening. But, in many ways, this piece was positioned as a respite from the tension and violence of Sweat before heading into the pathos and poignancy of The Gilded Six-Bits.

In the evening's final segment, Joe (Aldo Billingslea) is a young man who is head over heels in love with his wife, Missy Mae (Omozé Idehenre). They have a routine of highly romantic rituals marking the end of each work week and literally fall into each other's eyes as if diving into pools of love.

Joe (Aldo Billingslea) and Missy May (Omozé  Idehenre) in
The Gilded Six-Bits (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When a flashy businessman from up north opens an ice cream parlor in town, Slemmons (Tyee Tilghman) can't help but notice Missy Mae. When Joe comes home early from work one day and finds Slemmons in bed with his wife, what was once a beautiful, loving relationship crumbles to dust. The Gilded Six-Bits is a beautifully paced tale of sexual betrayal and hard-earned forgiveness which gives Billingslea and Idehenre some exceptional moments onstage. Here's the trailer.

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In 1728, Antoine François Prévost d'Exiles (better known as the Abbé Prévost) published the first four installments of Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Quality. His short novel (published in the seventh and final installment of the series) entitled L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut was the source for an 1831 ballet entitled Manon Lescaut that was created by Jean-Louis Aumer for the Paris Opera Ballet.

Prévost's love story inspired the operas Manon Lescaut (1856) by Daniel Francois Esprit Auber, Manon (1884) by Jules Massenet, and Manon Lescaut (1893) by Giacomo Puccini. The tragedy of Manon Lescaut was transformed into a silent film in 1926 as well as a 1940 screen adaptation in which Vittorio de Sica (a noted gambler) was cast as the impassioned Des Grieux.

The tale of an ardent young man willing to risk all his money in a card game in order to support his lover served as an inspiration for Alexandre Dumas, fils, whose 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias (better known as Camille) was adapted for the stage in 1852. Subsequently immortalized by Giuseppe Verdi in La Traviata (1853), the following clip is taken from a 2010 production at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw starring Aleksandra Kurzak as Violetta, Sebastien Gueze as Alfredo and Andrzej Dobber as Giorgio Germont

Camille's tragedy was choreographed in 1963 by Frederick Ashton in Marguerite and Armand as a showpiece for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and roundly ridiculed by Charles Ludlam at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1973.

Charles Ludlam in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's
1973 production of Camille

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival recently presented a neglected gem inspired by Prévost's short story that was directed by Hanns Schwarz in 1929. The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna stars Brigitte Helm as a woman being kept by Colonel Beranoff (Warwick Ward), a manipulative military officer. Ensconced in her own villa at the Colonel's expense, Nina Petrovna enjoys a life of luxury.

Alas, like the bejeweled and adored Manon, she is bored with her keeper and, when she spots a handsome young soldier marching by, tosses a flower to him (this tactic didn't work very well for Don José in Carmen, either). When Nina sees Lieutenant Michael Rostof (Franz Lederer) at a nightclub, she flirts with the young man and slips him the key to her villa when Colonel Beranoff isn't looking.

Brigitte Helm and Franz Lederer star in 1929's
The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna

Intoxicated, inquisitive and a bit incoherent, Rostof takes the bait and lets himself into her villa shortly after midnight. Unfortunately, he's too naive (and a bit of a dolt) to realize what her offer meant. Clueless to Nina's sexual come-ons, he eventually falls asleep in her bedroom chair while she spends the night on a couch in the living room.

When the Baron accuses Nina of infidelity, she follows her heart. After moving into a much cheaper apartment and giving up her gowns and jewelry, she attempts to find bliss with her puppy-like young stud but soon becomes bored without the trappings of wealth. Furiously trying to prevent her from being evicted, Rostoff starts gambling and loses everything to the Baron.

Surprisingly, the Baron offers the young soldier a chance to regain his honor and forego suicide. Needless to say, regaining his power over Nina is the Baron's ultimate triumph. Until the following spring...

Brigitte Helm dancing with Franz Lederer

There were two things which made The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna an unexpected delight. First and foremost was Schwarz's direction, which accomplished a great deal of storytelling without words. Tiny gestures, nervous looks, and long pauses in the action telescoped much deeper messages to the viewer with an Old World charm that simply doesn't exist anymore.

But as thrilling as it was to see a familiar story unfold in a new style, the accompaniment by Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra imbued the screening with a special kind of grace and passion. When I looked for clips from the film on YouTube, I discovered that, although the entire film is available online, the soundtrack is horribly warped. It's certainly no match for the music that was enjoyed by the audience in the Castro Theatre. You can check it out yourself:

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