Saturday, January 14, 2017

World of Wordcraft

Words matter. Over the course of the past year, that simple statement has gained a lot of weight. Several political writers have posited that, during 2016's rising tide of anti-intellectualism, conservative calls to "drain the swamp" have not been aimed at political corruption but at "eggheads."

Words matter. A recent Facebook conversation began when an ardent Trump supporter smugly broadcast his excitement about the vote to repeal Obamacare. Thrilled by the news, he crowed that he, of course, was not affected because he got his health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. When some of his friends chastised him for not understanding that Obamacare and the ACA are one and the same thing, he suddenly fell silent.

Words matter. To this day, there are parents who, when confronted with the news that their children are homo sapiens, assume that means that their children are gay, lesbian, or transgender.

Words matter. A strong vocabulary can mean the difference between living a life of functional illiteracy and being able to discern the difference between homophones such as "unprecedented" and "unpresidented."

Words matter. In particular, a skill with words matters. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when news of "Peeotus" Donald Trump's alleged golden shower fetish surfaced. Statements such as "Will this give Trump a leg up on world pees?" and "Trump has instantly redefined yellow peril" gave lots of people a hearty laugh. Comedians like Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah didn't hesitate to seize the moment and run with it.

Words matter. Many artists love to read. Some are also talented writers. Some (especially opera singers) are sufficiently fluent in multiple languages to be able to use their imagination to explore words written by novelists, poets, playwrights, and librettists. That's one of the ways they develop a sense of empathy for people living in different times, different cultures, and different situations. That's how they sharpen their communicative skills and learn how to show others exactly how much words matter.

Words matter. Those who develop a facility for language often share a gift for finding the hidden music in words as well as the rhythms embedded within a writer's text. Some have become masters at using their language skills to teach, reassure, and inspire others.

Words matter. Even if readers struggle with a famous author's abstract or absurdist style, a skilled actor can make a writer's words come to life in ways that less fertile minds cannot. When an actor with substantial performing chops in multiple disciplines gets a chance to share his love of a challenging author's writing with an audience, magic can happen.

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American Conservatory Theater welcomed the New Year with a string of performances at The Strand of a program simply entitled On Beckett With Bill Irwin. A long-time fan of Samuel Beckett's writing, Irwin had played Lucky opposite Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and F. Murray Abraham in a 1988 production of Waiting For Godot at the Lincoln Center Theatre. In 2009, he appeared in a new production at Studio 54 (this time in the role of Vladimir) with co-stars Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and John Glover.

Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin in the 2009 production
of Waiting For Godot (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Born in Dublin on April 13, 1906, Beckett's poem entitled Whoroscope was inspired by a biography of the French polymath, René Descartes; his first collection of short stories was 1934's More Pricks Than Kicks. In addition to his novels (Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Murphy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Watt, How It Is), Beckett is known worldwide for his plays (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Days), which have made a substantial contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd. As noted by Wikipedia, many of Beckett's works are famous for their minimalist tendencies.
"The extreme example of this, among his dramatic works, is the 1969 piece Breath, which lasts for only 35 seconds and has no characters (though it was likely intended to offer ironic comment on Oh! Calcutta!, the theatrical revue for which it served as an introductory piece)."
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Although he famously received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature, Beckett was an athletic student who enjoyed playing cricket and whose family loved vaudeville. He joined the the French Resistance during World War II and, late in life, developed a friendship with a nearby farmer's young son, André René Roussimoff (the wrestler who grew to become André the Giant). Last year, San Francisco's Custom Made Theatre presented the world premiere of a play by Gino Dilorio about their relationship entitled Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant. Today, a bridge in Beckett's birthplace is named in his honor.

Bay Area audiences have enjoyed a long and loving relationship with Bill Irwin (the talented actor, director, teacher, and clown who, in 1984, became the first performance artist to win a five-year MacArthur Fellowship).
Bill Irwin stars in On Beckett With Bill Irwin

On Beckett With Bill Irwin offers the actor a unique opportunity to share his love for Beckett's writing with audiences. During an intimate 70 minutes (which may be followed by a Q&A session), he recites passages from Beckett's Texts For Nothing as well as some of his novels. Irwin also explains the challenges faced by an actor who must learn such difficult passages as Lucky's monologue in Waiting For Godot and demonstrates how Beckett's minimalist style (which is often laced with black comedy) is a golden opportunity for a professional clown.
“Clowning is as much instinct as anything else. These two threads of work -- baggy-pants comedy and Samuel Beckett’s writing -- they just seem to connect. Beckett and his family went to the variety theatre often; a point which his biographers make. His descriptions of physical business, his stage directions, and his description of characters’ costuming often seems to echo the business of music-hall comics. When it came to casting, Beckett was interested in baggy pants practitioners: Chaplin, Keaton. He was not a 'clown-writer' -- he wasn’t writing for clowns -- but he seemed an aficionado.”
Bill Irwin in ACT's rehearsal studio (Photo by: ONLINE_YES)

Beckett's writing may not thrill everyone (Irwin freely admits that he's never been able to make it through any of Beckett's novels). However, as he explains what inspires him about the way Beckett uses words -- and starts to play with the tools of his clowning trade (oversized shoes, baggy pants, various sizes of bowler hats) -- Irwin does much more than bring Beckett's writing to life. He morphs into the kind of college professor who could light a torch for absurdist literature in a student's heart and fan the flames of anyone's curiosity. In the following (2000) interview with Charlie Rose, you can witness his passion for Beckett as well as his intelligence as a performing artist.

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