New: “I took my play and ran…”

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—> Read “Subject To Punishment: Julie Bovasso’s Angelo’s Wedding and the Politics of the Unproduced,” my article on Bensonhurst-born playwright/actor/director Julie Bovasso (1930-1991) in the May 2017 edition of Theatre Survey (58:2). 

“The preview performance of Julie Bovasso’s Angelo’s Wedding on 11 May 1985, imploded after an altercation between the playwright and the staff of Marshall Mason’s Off-Broadway Circle Repertory. Bovasso, then almost fifty-five years old, attended the performance against the explicit wishes of the production team; the rehearsal period had been fraught. Suspecting unauthorized cuts, Bovasso took a seat in the audience, but then, midshow, confronted the backstage crew and demanded the chance to give the actors notes. The staff refused. At the start of the third act, Bovasso changed tactics: she alighted the stage and instructed the audience to leave the theatre. Members of the crew blocked her access to the actors, leading to a physical altercation, a 911 call, and, eventually, her forced eviction from the theatre.”

[Photo credit: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Julie Bovasso.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1950 – 1963.]

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Broadening Access to Broadway?

 

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Andreas Feininger, “Theatre Ticket Sale, Times Square,” 1979, Museum of the City of New York [90.40.27]
It’s true that all New Yorkers can take advantage of any TKTS booth by the very fact of their mobility, but this philosophy—the idea that patrons should travel to a centralized, civic arts space for their cultural uplift—has proven over the past decades to rely on faulty logic.

Read the article at City Limits.

 

Lateral IV: Annie Lanzillotto and Eviction Survival Published

My article in Lateral IV, the journal of the Cultural Studies Association, is part of a special issue on performance and cultural studies, edited by Eero Laine and Stefanie Jones. “Live from the Nebulizer: Annie Lanzillotto and Eviction Survival,” can be read here.

Lanzillotto and her grandmother Rosa Marsico Petruzzelli performing together in a’Schapett! (1996) at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx. Photo: Andrew Perret
Lanzillotto and her grandmother Rosa Marsico Petruzzelli performing together in a’Schapett! (1996) at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx. Photo: Andrew Perret

 

 

 

The New Brooklyn: “Girls” Vs Ebbets Field?

The gentrification spat between Spike Lee, Errol Louis, and AO Scott inspired me to write this piece about some of the dangers in the “old vs. new Brooklyn” narrative, and the long history of artists protesting the way the Times represents the outer borough neighborhoods of New York. It was published today in New Geography.

 

The New Brooklyn: Girls Vs Ebbets Field?

Barclays Center, Brooklyn.jpg

So much spit has flown on the topic of gentrification in New York City that it seemed at best superfluous and at worst suspicious for New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott to say anything at all about the subject. But Scott couldn’t resist. In “Whose Brooklyn Is It, Anyway?” last month, Scott stuck a toehold into the debate sparked by film director Spike Lee, whose 7-minute rant against gentrification recently went viral. Lee compared the influx of white New Yorkers into the south Bronx, Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights to “motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus,” and decried the pricing out of renters and the wholesale takeover of neighborhoods, whose schools and streets, he claimed, received few resources before the white interlopers arrived.

Among the responders to Lee’s tirade was journalist Errol Louis, who accused Lee of hypocrisy. The filmmaker may have grown up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but the $32 million Upper East Side brownstone he just sold (or, as Louis argues, “flipped”), marked him as merely confused.

Scott gets a lot wrong in his attempt to wade into this discussion, but he gets one thing right: “culture, rather than politics,” can be a fruitful area of investigation if “labor, wealth and power” are your lenses of choice. There is, of course, ample research on economic restructuring and gentrification, real estate and global capital, and spatial injustices in the history of the city. But sticking with culture—including popular culture—is also important. Scott’s headline indicated that he was “tracing urban change,” from Welcome Back Kotter to Girls. In his analysis, as waves of demographic changes occur television representations shift.

He complicates this a touch by introducing the global branding of Brooklyn, but it isn’t quite clear how that branding is actually deployed. Through the ubiquity of artisanal shops? Scott’s partial answer is that this “New Brooklyn” found in “restaurants, real estate, and retail” is, in turn, seen—glorified? exaggerated? — on TV shows like Girls and 2 Broke Girls. In these shows, the borough “figures as a playground for the ambitious but not quite disciplined, broke but not really poor, mostly white, college-educated young.”

But while Scott seems somewhat dubious of the images of Brooklyn represented by these shows, he ultimately writes as if he believes that TV or film can perfectly double reality, and, further, be trusted: “Girls” reflects a reality, but also popularizes a small sliver of experience as a global brand, and—here’s the nasty part—even is reality. Things have changed, he writes, as one can see in the development battles over Atlantic Yards: “the old Brooklyn mourned the loss of Ebbets Field, historic home of the Dodgers; the new Brooklyn reacted with ambivalence to the construction of Barclay’s Center, where the Nets now play.”

Scott isn’t interested in how a show like Girls might change, absorb, or reinforce communities and/or realities. And he isn’t so much interested in what it might leave out. For Scott, the relationship between television shows and gentrification is fairly pat. This pits the “Old Brooklyn” against the new, as Scott trots out well-worn examples like the Honeymooners and Saturday Night Fever and The Squid and the Whale. Never mind that he could have easily chosen very different movies and TV shows—The Warriors or The Jeffersons or Willie Dynamite— but then the relationship would have been considerably less pat; the images and representations might have complicated his understanding of New York at a certain time, his simplistic vision of the Old Brooklyn of working-class aspiration and the New Brooklyn of handlebar moustaches.

When we think of certain films or TV shows as “capturing” their time, we usually mean that they tap into an anxiety, a flavor, an aesthetic. TV shows, in their goofy approximations of urban life — think here the fake skyline of Friends—clearly remind us that cultural producers pick and choose symbols that they use to construct — represent, if you will — a certain reality. To what end? Pleasure, entertainment, authentication, maybe documentation. But these can be contested, too, and Scott’s insistence on ignoring the cultural sphere as its own field in which struggles for power take place (the power conferred by image and by representation) is troubling.

In his tepid response via Twitter to Lee’s grouchy self-defense, Scott described his article as “reportage.” He identifies a correlation between a cheese store on his block and a cheese store in Girls and understands one as reflecting the other, yet longs for artists and writers to “discover” another Brooklyn, one that looks more like it did in Lee’s film Crooklyn, or Jonathan Letham’s novel Fortress of Solitude, when residents lived in “close, sometimes uncomfortable proximity to people in very different circumstances.” But he’s gotten himself into a pretzel here. Discontent with the world outside his window, he’s also vaguely discontent with the world on his TV.

Coincidence? Like any representation, Girls might help us recognize something about ourselves; might deliver a particular kind of pleasure to a particular kind of audience. But there are brutalities and deceptions to be found in any artistic or cultural representation of a city, and Scott’s decision to switch hats from critic to commentator suggested something a little provocative: the potential for actual public debate related to representation and power and wealth.

There’s a long history of artists protesting the way the Times evaluates and represents the outer borough neighborhoods of New York. In 1971, Robert Macbeth of the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem chided Times theater critic Mel Gussow for referring to a production at his theater as “defiantly parochial.” Although Gussow penned a glowing review, Macbeth took exception to the suggestion that the theatre company

should have been something other than what they were…. Gussow, it seems, is saying that Black artists can and will and should only achieve full presence in his view when they are performing in his theatre, for him and his audience, like it was during slavery time…. Then he would be spared the long journey to the “narrow province” of Harlem. Harlem would come to him. And the artists of the province would insure that a transistorized translator would interpret their petty offerings for his “more universal” intelligence.

In 2014, many critics still long for universal intelligence; it’s much easier than thinking about the particular, or what actual reportage on wealth, labor, and power in the Arts & Leisure section might be. All of the cultural elements at play here called for a rough and tumble sociology of culture approach, but in the end, we were left with a battle of wills (and egos). Lee and Scott engaged in a duel of authenticity: can Lee really speak as a victim of gentrification, or has the great leveler of wealth rendered him a gentrifier, in spite of his own self-identifications? Today’s duel of choice rages on at the expense of other questions: the lived experience of neighborhood in relation to cultural access, and the actual reach of cultural products.

Rather than reflect on Girls as a true “copy” of the city, it would behoove Scott to demystify it. Why this curious game of pretending Girls is not the fruit of creative and commercial choices made in order to shape a particular urban experience? Why ignore labor issues and embedded assumptions about wealth and representation, in an article that purports to look at “labor, wealth, and power”? Perhaps the terrifying thing for Scott would be to question where the pleasure in watching Girls comes from– for him, and for audiences.

Hillary Miller is Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University, where she teaches in the Immersion in the Arts: Living in Culture program. Her current book project, “Drop Dead: Crisis and Performance in 1970s New York City,” looks at theater and community identity during the 1975 fiscal crisis.

The “new” Brooklyn: Flickr photo by Matthew D. Britt, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York.

New Cac Post: Communicating Awareness

My recent post on cac.ophony.org. Read it in shiny original here.

Krista Tippett, the sharp and empathetic host of NPR’s On Being, recently interviewed the singer and composer Meredith Monk. While Monk isn’t one of the artists included in my dissertation, she’s of the place and of the period– 1970s, downtown New York– and it feels appropriate to have her compositions as my soundscape as I churn out the pages. If you’re not familiar with her work, she’s a dynamic artist who has worked in a range of forms over the past decades, best known for recording haunting melodies encased in vocal experimentation. Here is a video of her performing “Gotham Lullaby”:

Back to the interview: there’s much to love about this wonderful exchange (listen here), which delves deeply into Monk’s philosophies and development as an interdisciplinary artist. Early on the conversation, Tippet asks Monk about her notion of the audience as a kind of congregation:

Ms. Tippett: You’ve even talked about the audience as a congregation, which is interesting.

Ms. Monk: Yeah. I mean, I feel like a dinosaur holding out: “A live performance, live performance. Not the screen, live performance,” because I think that there is something about it that’s so unique and it’s so necessary to remember again.

Ms. Tippett: I always see you also insisting that music is about waking up. I mean, I don’t know if those two things have to be in tension, but I sense that, if you had to choose between transcendence and waking up and being right there in that moment, you would choose the latter. Just saying, I mean, live performance is as direct and awake and experience one hopes as anything we do.

Ms. Monk: That’s also, again, so interesting because actually I don’t see those two things as opposites. I actually think that, when you are that present and you are that awake and the audience actually experiences themselves, you know, the deepest part of themselves, then the whole situation becomes transcendent because we’re not — the way we live our lives is not necessarily with that level of presence.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Monk: And also certainly in this society, we’re taught to actually be distracted and diverted all the time from feeling, in a sense, you could say the pain — the good pain, you know, the pain as in openheartedness and rawness of the moment, the pain as well as the pleasure, everything in one in that moment.

The idea that we’d prefer waking up in the moment to transcendence is an appealing one; most of us who have had experiences in the classroom probably recognize the hope of the live performer: we are not necessarily seeking to deliver our students to transcendence, but just a few moments of awake. More relevant to those of us who think about communicating (and teaching) with our “audience” on a daily basis, is Monk’s articulation of a phenomenon of teaching people to be distracted and diverted from the moment. Just a few days ago, I was in a yoga class where the voice of the teacher was nearly drowned out by the songs of Kanye West blaring from the apartment upstairs; we could hear Kanye’s every syllable as the music pulsed throughout the building, making our Krishna Das seem like a mild sigh in comparison. As the teacher remarked, the “distraction” was like a taunting provocation: you actually think all you need to do to focus is to show up? The external elements stand in the wings, waiting.

A yoga class is one thing, and a college campus is another. On a morning in the first week of Spring semester, 25th Street had been blocked off, and DJ tables and speakers were set up. There were balloons, free hot chocolate, and Rhianna songs playing so loudly that the police horses at the end of the block were vibrating. As the deep bass ricocheted throughout the street, I commented to an acquaintance– a security guard at the college– that it seemed like a strange reason to block the street to traffic. Winter break had just ended, and students were milling around near a food truck. Someone had set up a basketball net, even though it was about 40 degrees outside. The thud-thud of the bass continued. The security guard answered me with weary tone: “I guess they had extra money.” I guess so, I concurred. “It seems strange,” he continued, “that they would do this right after break. Shouldn’t the students be focusing?”

It was a good question. When do we teach students to be distracted? And when do we create even further obstacles to communication? Baruch students are a scattered breed; the ones I come into contact with are rushing from jobs as far away as LaGuardia airport, some are juggling childcare needs, others just haven’t yet figured out how to organize their time post-high school. One of my students works all weekend at a hair salon in Astoria (eleven-hour shifts) and has the work of six classes to contend with Tuesday through Friday. I wondered about her– when arriving on campus, what might help this student excel and make meaningful connections with those around her?

Some days, in the lobby of the Vertical Campus, club hours at Baruch literally become “club” hours. There is a cacophony of distractions– a DJ surrounded by cake-selling student groups, with the dance music turned up to blast-off. Some students might enjoy the rush of it all, but it seems to actively repel faculty and administrators, who race towards the elevators like it’s an old-school game of tag and they see base. A shy student who might want to actually talk to a peer is left to do the awkward bend-close-to-the-ear move that’s normally perfected in frat basements and rock concerts. Just last week, as I hopped off the escalators, a row of male students awaited me, stacks of flyers in their hands. I took one. A blond in a Hooters tank top holding a pitcher of beer smiled back at me from the flyer. “Come join the brothers of Alpha Phi Delta for HOOTERS: Eat, Drink, and Meet the Brothers.” The thud-thud of the bass continued; I could hear the music even from my destination on the seventh floor.

I mention these two incidences not to be a curmudgeonly grouch, but to question some of the elements shoved into the frame of our every day communication. Do we create the environment for a whole range of interactions, or do we just create innumerable moments of distraction? Many of us profess to be on the hunt for increased calm and time for breathing; how do we model this for our students? As is frequently remarked upon, communication boundaries are changing. Our students don’t see an email to a professor as being qualitatively different from a text message to a friend. Students check facebook in class, and they remain so plugged in to other things at all times that it’s hard to get a refuge. Does the university have a responsibility to teach them how to find one? The VC provides them with one big building where everything happens; they need to learn to shift the rules of propriety everywhere they go, between a mid-day club to mid-day clubbing to economics class to the weight room. While this hopefully builds great fluency and flexibility, it also might be downright dizzying.

There’s no one-size-fits-all picture of academic focus and rigor. And I’m not suggesting that “play” should be absent from the daily equation of student life– certainly college experience operates on multiple planes. But we also need to recognize the carelessness with which we load distractions into the sightlines of our students. And “playfulness” comes in many guises, including being focused moment to moment. As Monk explained:

Ms. Monk: …I think that sense of playfulness is the sense of being alive; that’s another aspect of being awake and the fluidity. It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time, you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you. And I think that has to do with the playfulness and people can feel that. You know, I think that that’s what you’re giving an audience is that spirit of the give and take that playfulness implies.

I can’t end on a prescription or a conclusion here– 20 minutes of enforced meditation a day in the VC?– since these questions are all open for debate, from the concern about our own inattentiveness to the distractions that we facilitate (and even in the relativity of how we each perceive different kinds of music). Maybe one path to continue thinking about this is a merging and a meshing.  If you’re interested in further collisions between Meredith Monk and club music, check out this track from “Monk Mix,” remixed and interpretations of Meredith Monk’s music by folks like DJ Spooky, Arto Lindsay, and Ghostlover:

Postscript: I was excited to see that a former colleague of mine in the public school system, writer Diana Senechal, has a new book, The Republic of Noise, that tackles this very topic. My next post will take a look at some of the ideas in her book. Find out more here.

A Plastic Bag of the Occult

Remembering Daniel Gerould (1928-2012)

[Many wonderful reflections on Dan Gerould’s life have turned up in recent days; for a thorough accounting of his professional achievements, see the writings by Robert Simonson for Playbill.com, Yale University’s Krystyna Lipińska Iłłakowicz, and Superfluities Redux.]

[Update, March 1, 2012: I worked with some colleagues from the CUNY Graduate Center on a wikipedia page for Daniel Gerould, which you can now read and augment here. Special thanks to Frank Episale for jump-starting the idea.]

“The art of transformation is the talisman or open-sesame of my entire output. Theatre for me is the art of metamorphosis. Changing one’s skin and shedding one’s old self is fundamental to the dramatic impulse.”
–Daniel Gerould, Introduction to Quick Change, 2011

When I began the Graduate Center’s Theatre program (where Dan was a professor for forty years), I kept my part-time job as a script analyst for Vox3 Films, an endeavor to which I was dedicating hours every weekend; I remember sitting up until two in the morning one night, reading a bizarre film script about a corset-maker who gets stranded on a beach– at a loss for how to create a summary coverage for it. I was also teaching two sections of Introduction to Public Speaking, and on many other evenings I would sit up drilling the finer points of introductory communications theory into my head, taunted by the readings for three graduate courses that were still left to be read. Some of these were new challenges that I didn’t fully apprehend;  I ended up truly loving the adrenaline rush of teaching public speaking (an odd sentence, I know), but some days– especially those long afternoon “Symbolist Theatre” seminars, my mind was elsewhere.

At those moments, I would look to the front of the table and see Daniel Gerould sitting there; a man of unknown age but dapper looks and a sly, crafty humor, his pert bowtie always done up just so, his heavy tweed jackets sitting atop a thin frame. Amid the chaotic pace of running between teaching, reading Maeterlinck, and writing abstracts of short stories for my director-boss, I was often a fresh mess by the time I arrived at his seminar. And yet the calm that emanated from the head of the table was almost uncanny; Dan was so much at home in the seminar space, in the teaching realm– it was truly his habitat, and we were but invited guests, always treated with hospitality, dates, and tea. Most students who encountered one of Dan’s classes in the last two decades or so would have become acquainted with the large, yellowed note cards he occasionally referenced during class, or his excitement as he clutched a rare LP of an Alexander Scriabin opera. He had an easy lecture style, weaving gingerly between the points that he really wanted to get across about Lesya Ukrainka’s wood fairies, or Ibsen’s masterful building. (And who could forget the way he pronounced “Villiers de l’Isle-Adam”?)

Dan used to bound back and forth between his office in the Segal Center and his office in the Theatre Program next door; buoyant on the balls of his feet, he would fetch a few essential texts and cart them back to his Segal Center lair, where I spent much time shifting uncomfortably on the couch. As a colleague of mine smartly described it, in conversation with Dan, “you were never sure if a pause was his way of asking a question for you to complete, or just a moment where he filed through the entire history of the French Revolution to find the perfect way of phrasing a point.” This was true especially when you were launching a project or paper idea about which you weren’t quite confident; Dan was particularly encouraging of my interest in researching the unpublished plays of Lewis Mumford. This itch had grown out of a long, meandering inquiry into the collisions between urban development and theatre, one that took me through readings on ecology, gentrification, the city, the town, the country, the universe. I was all over the place– but Dan always listened and encouraged, and occasionally interjected with a little verbal smelling salt to bring me back to center.

When I applied for a grant to read these plays by Mumford, Dan nudged me in his very respectful manner, sprinkling our conversations with reminders that I not pre-judge what I would find in the archives, but see what the plays told me. This, I realize, was part of Dan’s strength as an educator; his ability to not judge the student, an essential cushion for many of us newbies groping through the first semesters in the doctoral program. It was for Dan that I had to write my first paper; I was tinged with anxiety, but his squiggly comments on the finished essay were probing and helpful, and I had the sense that he knew that he was letting me know that it was all fine; I could be in the club and sit at the table.

After I visited the Lewis Mumford archives, Dan would calmly dispense small tidbits about how to approach scholarship, and, more importantly, how to assert one’s own voice in the process. When I would express a sense of awe at the sheer volumes of published work by Mumford and about Mumford, Dan would wave it all away with his graceful, thin hands. He possessed a powerful ability to explain– concisely– why certain work was of value. Indeed, when I eventually presented a paper on this topic at a conference, I felt the guiding push of Dan’s mentorship, and recognized its steam. I recently came upon an old email he sent me about one draft of my book proposal on Mumford’s playwriting: “My primary suggestion for revision,” he explained, “would be to give yourself a somewhat larger authorial presence and louder and more committed voice.” This likely sums up the subtle way in which Dan shaped the authorial voice of so many people, inching and encouraging.

Even after I jumped a few steps afield from that project to pursue something different for my dissertation, Dan was still forwarding me copious emails that he thought related to my interests. Mid-January, an email flashed on my screen, an announcement for an exhibition in Slovenia looking at the historic residues informing current histories of ‘the urban.’ Dan, at 84 years-old, was constantly attending, archiving, curating, and informing, all with a gracious curiosity. Now, reading the introduction to his most recent book, Quick Changes, I understand more the foundations for Dan’s abiding and unflagging passion for the work that he championed:

“For the most part I have chosen to write about the underrated, the ignored, and the forgotten rather than the overexposed and universally celebrated. I have never been much concerned with whether an artist was a major or a minor figure, a canonical or non-canonical artist, since these valuations are constantly shifting and highly unreliable.”

Recent conversations have confirmed my prior assumption that this was not especially unique to my experience, but rather it was the very nut of being Dan’s student. And so we know how it felt to be gripped by an urge to thank him, for the simple, easy-going kindnesses he would dispense. I once brought Dan a bottle of wine after the close of one of the two independent studies I completed under his guidance; a small group of us had spent the semester reading up on eco-theatre, through which Dan was an ever-understanding and low-stress companion. He had encouraged us to organize a mini-conference on Eco-Theatre at the Segal Center as part of their Earth Day programming, and it was an endlessly worthwhile experience for us all.  I presented the gift somewhat sheepishly– was he even a wine drinker? He accepted it with his usual bright-eyed look, stashing it behind a stack of files, moving busily around his office, sorting papers and magazines so that there might be room for me to sit. One of the other students presented him with a Russian dessert, which charmed Dan to no end– he stopped for a moment, stooping over the Tuperware, drawing out each syllable in a deep octaved exclamation, before he placed it on his desk and resumed: “Alright…..” We thanked him for his generosity and flexibility all semester, but he just pushed on as if it was a moot point, ready for our reports from another two weeks of research.