Friday, June 16, 2017

The Genius Factor

Doting parents are often tempted to insist that their child is a genius, but that rarely turns out to be true. Even though I was enrolled in advanced placement courses in high school, I knew that I was far from a genius. It wasn't just that I lacked the fierce intellect, burning curiosity, and rapid responses of the smarter kids in my math and science classes, I was never the whiz-kid racing to get ahead of others or prove my answers superior to proposed alternates.

The MacArthur Fellowships (or so-called "Genius Grants") are awarded each year to citizens or residents of the United States who demonstrate "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." Awarded each year to promising talents in fields ranging from poetry and physics to music and mathematics by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the genius of these awards is that "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential."

Recipients of MacArthur Fellowships (for which one cannot apply) don't merely enjoy their work; most are deeply passionate about what they do and have been so for a very long time. Their devotion to their craft is so integral to their being that they cannot imagine going through life without being able to keep doing what they do.

Since the first MacArthur Fellowships were awarded in 1981, the program has furnished its recipients with a generous financial cushion that allows them to continue their work without being bedeviled by such mundane pressures as worrying about how to pay their rent while pursuing their art and/or continuing their research. In the immortal words of Cole Porter: "Do do that voodoo that you do so well."

As tempting as it is to label someone a "brainiac," what really sets a budding genius apart from the masses is not just a measure of intelligence quotient, but one's dexterity at creating and solving problems. From crossword enthusiasts to rocket scientists, many geniuses are able to point to what they have learned from the past before describing what they envision for the future.

* * * * * * * * *
Think about the various board games you've played during your life from checkers, chess, Chutes & Ladders, and Candy Land to Monopoly, Scrabble, backgammon, and Othello. Depending on the number of children living at home, some games may still be in use while others have been passed down to younger generations. Curiously, only a small fraction of American homes are likely to possess the board and "stones" used to play Go, the game which Henry Kissinger recommended as a way to gain valuable insights into Chinese thinking.

A Go board as seen in The Surrounding Game

More than 2,500 years ago, Go was invented in ancient China. While the rules of the game are relatively simple, Go offers two players an unfathomable universe of possibilities while using black or white stones. Rather than attempting to simply move a player's stones from one side of the board to the other, the goal is for a player to surround his opponent's stones on a Go board's 19 x 19 grid and, by doing so, capture them and eliminate them from the game (think of how an amoeba might envelope, swallow, and digest another micro-organism).

A Japanese scroll shows women playing Go

Go's popularity is strongest in East Asia, where children start playing at an early age. With more than 75 member countries, the International Go Federation has four Association Membership organizations which span multiple nations. Although Go may be the oldest board game still played in its original form, it has gained increasing popularity with online gamers. Because of its strategic challenges, it is especially appealing to nerds and people with addictive personalities.

The Surrounding Game is a fascinating new documentary by Will Lockhart and Cole Pruitt (master players of Go and co-founders of the American Collegiate Go Association) that was recently screened at San Francisco's 2017 DocFest. The goal of their documentary is to examine whether a "no-luck game" that is known for its subtlety and has been revered as a fine art across Asia for thousands of years can take root in American culture, which prefers testosterone-driven entertainment built around combat rather than strategy.

Andy Liu and Gansheng Shi in a scene from The Surrounding Game

The key personalities appearing in The Surrounding Game are aiming to earn the rank of professional level Go players:
  • Andy Liu is a Chinese-born American with very little formal training who has emerged as one of the strongest players in North America by frequently playing up to 20 games of Go a day. An introvert with an obsessive personality, he lives and breathes Go for most of his waking hours.
  • Ben Lockhart is a Brooklyn native who dropped out of college and now lives in South Korea (where he studies at a professional Go school).
  • Curtis Tang is a child prodigy who, by the time he was 10 years old, had earned the title of U.S. Junior Go Champion. After spending a year and a half at a Chinese academy where the curriculum was devoted almost exclusively to playing Go, he lost much of his enthusiasm for the game and now only plays "for fun."
  • Evan Cho was the 2014's Dado SoCal Go Champion.
To escape the intensity of the American Professional Certification
Tournament, Andy Liu and Evan Cho play a game of Go atop
Chimney Rock in North Carolina

In their Directors' statement,  Will Lockhart and Cole Pruitt explain that:
"We grew up playing the game but were always amazed at its obscurity in America compared to Asia. In early 2012, the American Go Association announced plans to launch a professional Go system in the United States -- the first outside East Asia in the history of the game. That summer, we embarked on a multi-year labor of love to trace the story of Go as it enters its fourth millennium. Shot over four years in China, Korea, Japan, and the United States, The Surrounding Game is the first feature documentary about the game of Go. Our protagonists (Andy Liu, Ben Lockhart, and Curtis Tang) are gifted teenagers who have devoted thousands of hours to the game. For them, Go is an escape to a world of pure logic and mathematical beauty, a reminder of the ephemeral place human beings hold in the universe. As they strive to become the first Western professional players, we explore the search for meaning that Go represents to its players, for whom the game is a distillation of conscious thought itself. This film reveals the magical world of Go through the coming-of-age story of America's top Go prodigies."
Ben Lockhart in a scene from The Surrounding Game

Unlike spelling bees (which follow a clearly-defined format), Go challenges players and viewers alike to consider whether an intellectual art form can survive in a modern world and whether a lifetime dedicated to playing Go is truly worth living. In order to build more tension into their story, the directors hit on a novel idea.
“We always wanted to communicate the incredible ability of strong Go players, but most feats in Go are hard to communicate to a general audience. So we hit upon an idea that was included in the film: challenge Andy Liu to reach 9-dan (the highest rank possible) on the most popular online Go server by winning forty games in a row in just 24 hours. The challenge was set for Thanksgiving, 2012. Andy began at midnight, but by 3:00 a.m. he had already suffered a few losses from trying to play multiple games simultaneously. Before he went to sleep, he admitted that this was harder than he had thought. At precisely noon the next day, with a plate of Thanksgiving leftovers and two cans of Red Bull, he started over from scratch, making a new account to play uninterrupted for twelve straight hours. To our amazement, by 11 p.m. he was nearing the finish line, 36 games down. Finally, at 11:56 p.m. (with four minutes to spare) Andy won his 40th consecutive game to complete the challenge.”
Andy Liu in a scene from The Surrounding Game

With animation by Xiangjun Shi (Shixie), music composed by Jon Natchez, and surprisingly lush cinematography by Colin Sonner, The Surrounding Game takes audiences on an unexpected journey across the Pacific. One stop is the Yugen No Ma (Room of Great Mystery), the most sacred room of the Go world which is used only for top professional matches and rests inside the Nihon Ki-in, Japan's national Go organization. Another is a visit to a retirement home outside Tokyo where 99-year-old Japanese master Go Seigen (the world’s greatest living Go player at the time) agreed to meet with the film's protagonists.
Michael Redmond (an American player who became a professional in the 1980s in Japan) said that he might be able to arrange a special visit to meet him. Given his advanced age, we had no idea whether he would be lucid enough to talk with us or what he might say. On the train ride there we wondered what would it be like for a man his age to look back on a lifetime of dedication to a single art form. Three years later, our memories of the experience are inseparable from Go Seigen’s scene in the film."
Go Seigen died on November 30, 2014 at the age of 100
"For us, singing “Happy Birthday” to the game’s greatest master was absurd, wonderful, and tragic, all at the same time. More than any other moment of filmmaking, eating strawberry birthday cake with the world’s greatest master exposed the strangeness of documentary, in which the filmmaker must participate directly in the reality being recorded. After years of editing, this scene feels more real than our memories from the original experience. We hope that our portrait of Go Seigen does justice to his life and preserves his legacy for future generations.”

* * * * * * * * *
In recent years, Hershey Felder has performed his one-man shows entitled Monsieur Chopin, George Gershwin Alone, Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein, and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, before adoring audiences at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Each creation is a masterful piece of storytelling in which Felder appears as a legendary composer while narrating and acting out key moments from that man's life. A skilled pianist, Felder performs the composer's music (often while singing and using slides) to deliver a magnificently intimate class in music appreciation.

A scene from Hershey Felder, Beethoven (Photo by: Christopher Ash)

Most of Felder's shows are set in a living room or salon where he can comfortably hold court before an audience. When I entered the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, eager to experience Felder's characterization of Ludwig von Beethoven, the last thing I expected to see was a graveyard filled with tombstones tilting away from a monument bearing the composer's last name. Nor was I prepared for the sound of a whinnying horse that kept repeating every few minutes before the show began (making me wonder if perhaps Young Frankenstein's imperious Frau Blücher was in attendance).

I need not have worried. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) explained in his program note:
“TheatreWorks has always celebrated the intersection of music and drama on our stage. Over the years, we’ve featured shows about musicians, such as 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, Carole King in Tapestry, Fats Waller in Ain’t Misbehavin’, and many more; and dramas about classical composers such as Mozart in Amadeus and Beethoven in 33 Variations. But in the world of music theatre, Hershey Felder’s work is unique, offering both the work of a genius played live and the genius himself. It is an experience I find both inspiring and irresistible, a chance to imagine talking, playing, living before you someone you have loved and listened to all your life.”
“After one preview of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, I asked Hershey if he had other shows that had not been seen in the Bay area. One immediately stood out for him because of the proximity of an important library and research facility just a few miles down the road (the Ira F. Brilliant Beethoven Center at San Jose State University). Hershey hadn’t performed his Beethoven show for a number of years and had been considering a rewrite and redesign of the show. Would we be interested in bringing it to TheatreWorks? A superb concert pianist, a charismatic actor, a consummate showman bringing life to one of the greatest composers of all time? A chance to launch a new version of a show never before seen in the Bay area? Yes, we were interested. And soon Hershey Felder, Beethoven was on its way to today. Another astonishing musical genius awaits us in our 48th season, when Hershey Felder returns in the regional premiere of Our Great Tchaikovsky.”

The composers that Felder portrays were extremely prolific artists who had a profound effect on music history. However, if one sorts them out by longevity, an interesting fact quickly comes into focus:
A scene from Hershey Felder, Beethoven (Photo by: Christopher Ash)

While most of these men were quite active socially, only Beethoven suffered from social isolation because of deafness. In order to find a way around the composer's severe handicap -- and the unending grief it caused him -- Felder has chosen to describe Beethoven's life through the eyes of Gerhard von Breuning (who, as a youth, had befriended Beethoven). By using this narrative device, Felder manages to sidestep the familiar "...and then I wrote..." format and describe Beethoven's life through the personal observations of a friend who knew about the tortures he had endured at the hands of ill-informed physicians, the misery inflicted on Beethoven by his abusive alcoholic father, the strained relations with his brothers Johann and Kaspar, the legal dispute to acquire custody of Kaspar's son, Karl; and the loneliness Beethoven suffered as he grew older and lost his hearing.

Thus, although it is no secret that Beethoven composed some of his greatest works despite the fact that he was deaf, it is not until Gerhard reads from a letter Beethoven sent to his brother that the audience understands the overwhelming grief and self-awareness the composer faced on a day-to-day basis. As Felder explains:
"Several years after I became aware of Beethoven when I was nine, I was introduced to his Heiligenstadt Testament." Not really a testament per se, but a letter to his younger brothers Karl and Johann, written when he was residing in the Viennese suburb of Heiligenstadt. It was written when Beethoven was 31 years old, and has haunted me since I first encountered it. Ever since, I have tried to imagine the man from whom the music came and have tried to reconcile the music with that very individual. This piece forms the basis of this new presentation of Beethoven."
A scene from Hershey Felder, Beethoven (Photo by: Christopher Ash)

Working on the unit set he designed (with lighting and projections by Christopher Ash and sound design by Erik Carstensen), Felder's dramatization of Beethoven's life and achievements has a deeper level of poignancy than his other shows. Directed by his long-time colleague, Joel Zwick, it probes some of the mysteries surrounding Beethoven's declining health and explores the few friendships that remained intact at the time of his death. As with all of Felder's shows, it distills an encyclopedic amount of research into an immensely satisfying, audience-friendly format that is well worth any music lover's time.

A scene from Hershey Felder, Beethoven (Photo by: Christopher Ash)

Performances of Hershey Felder, Beethoven continue through July 9 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

No comments: