Friday, August 21, 2009

FringeNYC 13: The Antarctic Chronicles

Men Wanted

For Hazardous
Small wages
Bitter cold,
Long months of complete
Constant danger,
Safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in
Case of success.

Men Wanted is my favorite prose poem. Of course, it's not really a poem at all, it's the advertisement Ernest Shackleton placed in The Times in 1913 when he was in search of men to accompany him on an expedition to journey to the South Pole. The best part is that he received hundreds and hundreds of responses.

I'm a little obsessed with Antarctica. I've mentioned this before here on this blog when I went to see Werner Herzog's remarkable documentary. Most people reading this know I wrote a play called Antarctica about two teenage girls and their journey to a fictional continent of ice and snow called "Antarctica" and their search for something else, for something that would make their lives different, better. For reasons I don't entirely understand, an inordinately large part of my psyche is taken up by dreams of a landscape that is so beautiful and severe it looks like another planet.

This brings me to Jessica Manuel's The Antarctic Chronicles, a show in which she tells of the year she spent in the icy south after answering the modern equivalent of Shackleton's Times advert. I loved this show, but I've been sitting on this review for days now because I'm having a lot of trouble writing about it. There are so many thematic parallels between Manuel's non-fiction, but stylized account, and my fictional play about a pretend Antarctica, that it just feels a little uncanny to me. Both pieces are about very young American women who feel lost and at loose ends and view Antarctica as a path to a new self and a meaningful life. Both pieces use the phrase "there are no polar bears in Antarctica" repeatedly. In both, girls are driven nearly mad by the brutal environment. But hers is real and mine is not, so enough about my play and on to hers.

Jessica Manuel spent a year in the McMurdo Station on Ross Island where she worked as a fuels operator, lived through a winter of darkness and monitored the color of her pee. She also saw the sun set and then rise again in the space of a minute, went from FNG (fungie, i.e. Fucking New Guy) to pro with "ice time", made crappy yet hilarious films, drove a rig, fueled planes, visited the Russian station, fell in and out of love and changed her life. That's it I guess, I mean what draws people like me to the idea of travel - as a catalyst to life change. In my play Magda says if they travel to Antarctica "it will change everything". For Jessica Manuel it did, she found a sense of self and a purpose that was lacking. The show itself is huge amounts of fun - hilarious and self-aware.

Winston Churchill thought Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 was a waste. The Pole had already been located by Amundsen and Scott, who died there. He went anyway and encountered disaster, but pulled every single person who went with him out alive. He was revered by his men, and rightly so. His story is extraordinary and inspiring in the most old-fashioned heroic sense. I firmly believe that there are things in the world worth doing and that the world in the the early 21st century is both vast and tiny. The age of exploration is mostly over, but one's life can still be altered by journeys to icy lands. As Ernest Shackleton once said: "We all have our White South."

After my show Antarctica closed in FringeNYC 2007, a male acquaintance told me that he enjoyed it, but he thought the story of Polar exploration was essentially a man's story. All I can say is that he doesn't have any Ice Time whatsoever.

Because it took me such a ridiculously long time to write this piece, The Antarctic Chronicles has closed in NYC. But hopefully she'll remount it again.

(photo: Zoee B)

Alice Guy Directed Over 300 Films

I've been pretty much neglecting The List I began about a year ago - perhaps I was disheartened by the Twilight debacle

To recap: I started a series of posts focusing on various female film directors. I wondered why so shockingly few women through the past 100+ years have had successful careers (particularly in the US), and why it was still so ludicrously difficult for women to get movies financed and made.

Today, Fuzzy Bastard forwarded a really interesting article about Alice Guy, yet another female pioneer of cinema I had never heard of. Back in 1895 when the Lumière brothers more or less invented the movies and screened their short films, Alice Guy, a secretary at the Gaumont still camera company was in the audience. Gaumont "allowed" her to film some shorts on her day off for no pay, and Guy proceeded to invent narrative cinema. A surprising number of her films survive, which makes it even more unfortunate that she has been almost entirely forgotten. Wonderfully, Kino has just released a DVD which contains more than 50 of her films. Here, she filmed music hall performer "Little Tich" in 1900. Jaques Tati cited this short as an influence.

"Le Tonneau Ivre" is a charming little comedy short from 1906:

Guy eventually made her way to New York and set up a film studio in Fort Lee. She subsequently directed some films for the Hollywood studios, returning to France in 1922. She was unable to find work and never made another film. She died in New Jersey in 1968.

(image: Kino)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

FringeNYC 13: The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer

Last Saturday night I exhaustedly dragged myself to FringeClub and the Variety Power Hour after eating a truly fantastic scallop ceviche and drinking way more wine than I should have after tramping around in the muggy heat all day (like, two glasses. I'm a lightweight).

This year, the weekend show (admission with a FringeNYC pass or $5) is being hosted by Charlie LaGreca - his brother Jeff is currently MIA, but will be returning to co-host soon, I hear. So, on Saturday, the lone brother LaGreca was joined on stage by an Australian.

The Australian at FringeClub with Charlie LaGreca

I had no idea who the Australian was, so I PMed Charlie the next day who told me this new Power Hour acquisition was Tim Watts, from the show The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.
I saw the show the other night and I am just smitten with the whole thing. Watts combines puppets, animation and live music to tell a melancholy and funny post-apocalyptic undersea adventure that exudes so much charm it simply shouldn't be allowed. Oh, and he runs the whole show himself using a Wii.

See? If he lived in NY the damn thing would run for years.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer
HERE Arts Center - Dorothy B. Williams Theatre
Weeping Spoon Prductions
Writer: Tim Watts
Remaining Performances: Sat 22@2:15, Sun 23@8:15, Thurs 27@7:30

P.S. Excitement! I just discovered an interview with me and Maggie Cino from 2007 on the FringeClub site. Who knew? The show also includes an interview with the lovely and multi-talented Melle Powers.

FringeNYC 13: A Time To Dance

The last sentence of my very favorite book, Angela Carter's Wise Children is: What a joy it is to dance and sing! For my money, it's the best novel about theater ever written - the story of Nora and Dora Chance, identical twins and geriatric chorines whose long life and career zooms through celebrity, decay, musical reviews, Hollywood, men, boys, and a Shakespearean theatrical dynasty. It's music hall magic realism and just dizzyingly good.

Libby Skala's A Time To Dance possesses that same rare and joyful energy. Skala plays her own great-aunt, Elizabeth Polk, in a gleeful one woman dance/performance through two world wars, fortune, poverty, innovation (in both dance and clothing fasteners), and a hilariously bad marriage. It's difficult to explain accurately the charm of this show. As played by her niece, Polk was clearly one of the world's rarities - a deeply happy person who possessed the gift of bringing joy to others. Late in her life she pioneered dance therapy, using movement and dance to enrich and help the lives of deaf, developmentally disabled and emotionally disturbed children. I do wonder whether the benefits derived by her students stemmed from the methods she developed or from her own force of personality. Polk had a long, well lived life and Libby Skala is an extraordinary performer. This is a great story, told with economy, verve and just a grain of the magical.

Interestingly, after I saw the show, I was raving about it to a male acquaintance. After I described it briefly, he asked me, "is this a girl play?". I very nearly lost it. Why do so many people who should know otherwise believe the lives of women could only be of possible interest to other women? To answer the question: No. It's for everyone.

Back to Libby Skala. A few years ago I saw her show, Lilia!, in which she played her grandmother Lilia Skala - Elizabeth Polk's sister. She had a fascinating life as well - she trained as an architect, acted with Max Reinhardt's company (which made me wonder if she knew Hedy Lamarr), and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for acting in Lilies of the Field opposite Sydney Poitier. Clearly, Skala comes from an extraordinary family. And this is the best part - there was a third sister.

Elizabeth Polk, 1930s Vienna

A Time To Dance
Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street - The Lafayette Street Theatre
Artistic New Directions
Writer: Libby Skala
Remaining Performances: Thurs 20@9:45, Fri 21@3:00, Mon 24@9:45

(photo courtesy of Grace Polk)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


On Monday, Virgodog and I drove up to the Catskills to attend a friend's wedding. On the way, we drove through Woodstock, and as we traveled along the main drag we heard a tremendous THUMP.

A bird hit our windshield. We killed a bird in Woodstock! On the 40th anniversary of the legendary rock festival.

The wedding was lovely and wonderful, and you will be happy to know the avian community has had their revenge. Upon the removal of its cover this afternoon, my down comforter EXPLODED.

Feathers everywhere. Revenge is theirs.

my bedroom floor

Sunday, August 16, 2009

FringeNYC 13: Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant

Poor Anita Bryant.

Okay. Some background. I had vaguely heard of Anita Bryant before seeing Milk and before seeing David Karl Lee's show Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant, but her "Save Our Children" campaign was in the late '70s, and both the Gay Rights movement and right wing faith based politics were things pretty much absent from my childhood home. She was the runner up in the 1959 Miss America Pageant, she had a successful recording career (her music appealed to the Pat Boone set), became the spokesmodel for Florida orange juice, and pitched among other products Coca-Cola, Tupperwear and Kraft Food Products. She married and recorded albums of Christian music. She was also bigoted, self-righteous, poorly informed, self-enchanted and drunk on her own certainty.

I loved Pie-Face. As anyone who reads this blog at all regularly knows, gender politics is my beat. And I sometimes have a really big problem with drag. It sometimes feels deeply misogynistic to me and I don't understand how it differs from blackface. Sometimes I look at productions featuring men playing women and I think: "Great. Even fewer roles for women on stage. What is this? Burbage circa 1580?" But I love Kiki. I love Divine. And I love Lee's Anita Bryant.

In the show's hour running time he tells of the rise and fall of Anita's repulsive crusade against homosexuality (for some reason the phrase "orange juice spokesmodel" gets funnier each time it is repeated) and the gay rights movement she inadvertently helped galvanize. Lee is a remarkable performer. It would have been so easy to play Bryant as a really ugly caricature, but he doesn't, he is doing something much more interesting. The things she says are stupid and bigoted and hateful and uninformed. She is an obvious precursor to Sarah Palin, and likely appealed to the same demographic. But she was crushed like a bug by both the culture wars of the '70s, and the narrow, patriarchal way of life she championed. I don't necessarily feel sorry for her, but Lee is playing an actual flawed human being whose downfall was largely of her own making. He's wickedly funny, but not needlessly cruel. The story of gay liberation (and he includes in his footage clips of gay women as well as men) that is interwoven with Anita's story is incredibly moving.

So, I guess, poor Anita Bryant. It's tough being on the wrong side of history. But I really, really hope she remains there.

And the pie incident. Honestly, I could watch it all day:

Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant
Kangagirl Productions
Writer: David Karl Lee
Director: Kenny Howard
Actors Playhouse, 100 7th Avenue South
Remaining performances: Wed 19 @ 3:45, Sat 22 @ 7:45, Sat 29 @ 2:15

(photo: Dixie Lee Photography)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

All Righty Now

Over the past few years I've become really interested in the way brains work. Or, to be more specific, the way my brain works.

I'm good with pictures, bad with words - particularly spoken words, as there is nothing to look at and I have trouble latching onto ideas or facts and get really easily distracted. I was the worst waiter in the world as I could never remember anybody's order. My visual memory tends towards the astonishing. I can remember pretty accurately anything I look at. The problem comes when I try to tell anyone what I see. I might be able to see everything perfectly, but the moment I try to speak about what I see, it all falls apart. I can almost feel an internal click, and I need to translate what I see into actual words that I then have to speak aloud and I can practically feel everything slowing down and grinding to a halt inside my head. I find making this switch both very difficult and frustrating.

Growing up, I used to draw constantly. I don't any more, and I miss it. I feel rusty and out of practice. For a long time I thought I Wasn't Good Enough. I don't think I could have even articulated was I wasn't good enough for. But, I want to draw things again. To be honest, I think I saw that as one of the purposes of this blog, and it's something I haven't done at all. But - no more! Here's a drawing I did a couple of months ago at the Society of Illustrators Jazz and Sketch night:

I've never been particularly great at drawing from life. I just have to get it together and make more art, I guess is what I'm saying.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Can you think of a bigger douchebag?

I had a total delayed reaction to something I read/wrote last week:

She married a really creepy arms manufacturer who although half-Jewish, consorted with Hitler and was an enthusiastic fascist.

I was writing about Hedy Lamarr's first (of six) husbands, Frederich "Fritz" Mendl, who was a Jewish, Austrian Fascist. I mean, it's completely mind-boggling. Out of curiosity, I decided to do a little digging (i.e. I googled him). He was more of a Mussolini fascist, rather than a Hitler fascist, but - according to Lamarr's autobiography - he still invited Hitler to his parties in the '30s. As well as keeping Lamarr (who married him when she was 19) locked in his castle, acquiring and burning all the copies of her film Ecstasy that he could get his hands on, he also allegedly forced Lamarr to sleep with Hitler in order to cement an arms deal. As the '30s progressed, he transferred most of his holdings to Switzerland, and after Austria was annexed to Germany and the Nuremberg Laws were enacted, his remaining properties were seized. He moved (to be clear, he didn't flee, he simply relocated) to Switzerland, where as late as 1940 he was trying to do business with Hitler's Reich. When this didn't work out, he traveled to Argentina, where her remained for the duration of the war and served as an adviser to Juan Peron. After the war he returned to Austria.

I just felt like sharing my researches into someone who was obviously one of the most horrible people on earth.

And I do apologize for what is turning into an All Holocaust Week! here on my blog (It's not over yet!)

Hedy Lamarr (at the time, Hedwig Kiesler) in Ecstasy, 1933

Safe At Home

As everyone knows, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years of labor & re-education in North Korea a few weeks ago. From what I've read, it sounds as if they were likely snatched from the Chinese side of the N. Korea/Chinese border, but no one really knows what happened except for the women themselves and the incredibly scary N. Korean government.

Now, in a completely movie-ready turn of events, Big Daddy Bill Clinton flew to North Korea, met with crazypants dictator Kim Jong Il, swept Ling and Lee into Steve Bing's private loaner jet, and brought them home to their relieved and happy families. Yay! The pictures of their arrival at the Burbank airport are lovely and joyful. I may be jumping the gun a bit, but I really want to read the Ling sisters' inevitable book, and will totally watch the movie on whichever cable network it airs.

For me, though, this is pretty much where the happy ends.

I know this is going to come off as unspeakably glass half empty of me, or like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, when he said, "I can't enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening." I know we should all be really happy and everything, but when Lee and Ling were sentenced a few weeks ago, I spent a really depressing couple of days reading eye witness testimony about the N. Korean gulag system, which, I'm ashamed to say, I really knew nothing about prior to Lee and Ling's trial. The two young journalists didn't wind up in a labor camp. They are American, and therefore valuable. That, at least, is the perception most Americans have of themselves in relation to the world. Amidst all the celebrating, I really hope that people don't lose sight of the fact that nothing has changed. The N. Korean gulags are still going strong. If you want your week ruined, take a little time and read about what they are like.

Which started me thinking abut other Special Prisoners (as we'll call them for the purposes of this post). In 1944, Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, sister of NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who was living in Budapest with her hungarian husband at the time of the Nazi invasion, was arrested as a political prisoner and sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. This was by no means easy. The conditions were brutal, but compared to the fate of most other Jews (including her husband, who died in the gas chambers at Mauthausen), she was placed in comparative safety - because as the sister of an influential American politician, she might wind up being useful. Gemma survived and finally managed to emigrate to the US with her children. She did not have an easy war, but her status as an American did likely save her life.

A much more squirrely prospect in every way was Gluck’s fellow Ravensbrück Special Prisoner, the Polish Countess Karolina Lanckorońska. She was an aristocrat, an art historian and a fierce Polish nationalist. She was a really admirable character in many ways – she was fearless, generous and an intellectual patron of the arts. When first arrested after the German invasion of Poland for her Resistance work, her reply to the Gestapo was, “Not just now, I don’t have time for this.” Under Gestapo questioning, when she was asked, “Are you an enemy of the German Reich?”, she replied, “Yes, obviously.” She was sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted. She bounced around various German prisons, finally being sent to Ravensbrück, where she was given a nice apartment and plenty of food, as she was under the protection of the Italian Royal family and, reportedly, Himmler. She gave away her food to her fellow prisoners, and insisted she be allowed to join the general population. After a hunger strike, her wish was granted. In her memoirs, she rhapsodized about the great joy she felt when she entered the camp proper, as she felt it to be a deep insult to be treated differently from her fellow Polish prisoners. One can’t help but think this might be a bit disingenuous. She did lots of good work in the camp – she educated, she organized, she used her special status to help her fellow prisoners. She was also casually anti-Semitic (duh), truly saw herself as a modern day Christian martyr launching a glorious Middle Ages-style crusade of righteousness (her words,, although I am paraphrasing) and her views about what the war was all about (Polish patriots v. German invaders. End of story.) was slightly, ahem, narrow. Also, one wonders how much of her unbelievable bravery (at one point she seemed so unconcerned for her own safety, a cellmate thought she was a madwoman) was due to the fact that she somehow believed, as a Polish aristocrat, that she was a god among mortals.

Which brings me back to Americans' view of themselves, particularly abroad. It feels a bit odd to say this view of being inviolate is that of white, middle class Americans when the women whose plight began all this are of Asian descent, but maybe not as it's really a question of class, as the Polish Countess would have been happy to tell you. It's American exceptionalism brought to the individual level. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that as happy as I am that Ling and Lee are home and safe, I can't get it out of my head that there are thousands of men, women and children who are currently suffering the fate we feared would befall the two Americans. Even Jon Stewart last night made a joke about the camps (saying that they would have likely been put to work manufacturing toys for Chinese children while showing stock footage of a clean, happy looking Asian factory) which, from all the testimony I've read, is just insulting. This is a subject very, very few Americans know anything about and now that the two Americans are safe, we can go back to making jokes and ignoring the suffering of these thousands of people. I know I'm coming off as shrill and humorless, but the word I choose to use for women like Lee and Ling and the Polish Countess isn't "special", but "lucky".