Monday, December 30, 2013

A Year in Books

Thinking back over 2013, I remember events leading to books—and books leading to events—and books leading to other books. By year’s end my choice of books has changed my course entirely, at least for the coming year.

I read a playful book (The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum), a laughable book (Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen), and an entertaining book (Unsinkable, a memoir by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway). I read several biographies, one or two political books, and some of historical impact. I read The Scarlet Letter, a woman’s emancipation book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was the Hemingway of his day.

My regular reading was varied, prompted mostly by a desire for fun, but as I found the year moving forward, a strong direction became clear. It started with a presentation I wrote about on this blog, about two women’s suffragists in upstate New York in the 19th century. I had heard, of course, of Susan B. Anthony, but this presentation included Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was totally unknown to me. Gage caught my interest, and I started reading her book Women, Church, and State, and made a trip to her museum in Fayetteville, NY.

There I learned, among other things, that Gage was the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, and she had some influence on him personally and on his writing. This led me to read L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz, by Katherine M. Rogers. I put both of Gage’s books on my kindle and began to read. She was indeed a passionate and well-informed writer, and, having been a Feminist since the early days of Friedan and Steinem, I read her call to arms—a shot from the bow from the 19th century—and was ready to arm the troops again.

Women who devoted their lives to the cause of enlightening others and were forgotten soon after their deaths have long touched my heart. Such a woman was Marietta Johnson, a progressive educator whose name is all but lost to history, whose work I have studied and written about. Now Matilda Joslyn Gage is on my radar, and I hope to write about her as I research more about the women in the early days of the women’s suffrage movement in this country.

I went on to read In Her Own Right/the Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by Elizabeth Griffin, and Marmee and Louisa, by Eve La Plante. I’m beginning Margaret Fuller, by Megan Marshall. All of these have the backdrop of the 19th century, and involve women who were well aware of their lack of rights and determined to see that condition change. The eye-opener to me about this period of time was that the suffrage issue was closely tied to the Abolition movement. The women who were working to free the slaves, whatever it took, found was that they had much in common with the Negroes of their day—women not only didn’t have the legal right to vote, they could not own property, and in actuality they too were property. Of their husbands. From this awakening came another, equally great movement, and it is not yet finished. The brave women who took a stand for themselves were pushed aside when freedom was established for slaves, on the grounds that the “woman question” was insignificant in comparison to rights for black men.

I have started reading about this period. I must learn more about Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, and read about Susan B. Anthony, Carry Nation, Frances Willard, and Lucy Stone. I want to read what they wrote, and learn what their lives were like.

It’s going to be a busy year. I am looking forward to another year of reading, and being surprised.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Geriatric Dating

I’m beginning to think that dating is for kids. A friend once pointed out that at a certain time of life—youth, I believe it’s called—everybody loves pairing off with a member of the opposite sex. Hormones and energy are rampant, and hope abounds on all sides that there is one right person for everybody, and that the particular person I’m going to the movies with tonight just may be the one for me.

In my own salad days, we heterosexuals didn’t even know that gays dated. We also didn’t think old people of 30 or more could, would, or would want to date. That would be silly. What were they going to do? Hold hands in the back row of the movie? Kiss each other? Eww.

As time went by and Mr. Right came and went, and another Mr. Right did the same, I for one began to feel differently about dating. I’m talking about the Dark Ages here, before it was okay to live together without being married. The specter of sex hung over us all, unspoken and undefined, as terribly powerful as it was just about unattainable. Years erased some of the fears, changed some of the mores, and before I knew it I was old, widowed, and just a shade lonely. There was this new thing called a laptop, with treasures of all kinds locked inside. I started blogs, put up a website, played with Facebook, wrote pithy comments on twitter, and signed up for a senior dating service.

I made contact with some interesting men by writing a snappy profile and getting as good a picture as possible to identify myself. We started by emailing, but more often than not, I lived in too remote a location, no matter where I happened to be living, for an elderly man to consider trying to get to me. It seems older men don’t drive an hour to have lunch or see a movie with a woman, even if they think they might like her. Something must happen as the testosterone abates and a man is looking back at his life instead looking forward to slaying dragons and conquering worlds. The drive toward a woman is replaced with lethargy and a desire to be accommodated by her.

I did meet one really swell guy on the service, but he lived over an hour’s drive from me. This was when I was living in Hoboken, which has a tremendous parking problem. But he made that drive often, and we had some good times together. Sometimes I took the train to his little New Jersey town, sometimes we went on trips (even an Elder Hostel); and became fast friends until he actually met a lady who swept him off his feet. I was disappointed, but happy for him as we both had come to accept that the lightning was not going to strike either one of us, much less both. I got back on the dating service and tried again. I met one guy I really liked, but he was less interested than I (and the last lady he had met on the service wanted not only marriage, but demanded that he sell the house he loved and buy the condo in NYC adjacent to hers, so that they, as a happily married couple, would have the two apartments remodeled into one. He loved her, but not THAT much.)

I had been in New Paltz eight months before I re-enrolled on the service. I set up discussions with one man who called himself something like “Hilltop Hideaway” and described his home as far from town, in the woods, with a couple of big dogs. Hilltop had a lot of energy, wit, and we got along fine on paper, until he sent me a hate screed about how all Muslims are war-mongers who should be annihilated and asked me what I thought of it. Thinking it was a joke I told him just what I thought—it was ignorant, racist, degrading and dangerous. Then he wrote back that he agreed with it. All at once I could picture that hilltop abode (now a shack as I envisioned it) with its arsenal of weapons of mass and minor destruction. His friendly dogs became in my mind mastiffs and pit bulls trained to kill. He said politically we were too far apart. I agreed.

Then I met a sweet retired professor who suggested books for me to read, and he wrote emails back and forth before we actually did meet in person. He was good-looking and smart, a good conversationalist, and I thought we might become close friends at least. But he emailed me that there was no “future” for us, unless I just wanted to continue as a pen pal. After some reflection, I didn’t.

Yesterday I drove an hour and a half in heavy snow to meet a man who had ignited my interest. He lives near Albany. He seemed bright, dynamic, and multifaceted. My fantasy grew about our meeting as I barreled through snow and slush. My GPS wasn’t working and I took a wrong turn, pulling off the thruway to look for signs toward the town where I was to meet him. I called him to explain where I was, and ask for directions, and without any sympathy or emotion I could discern on the telephone he told me I had gone too far and instructed me to turn around and drive back onto the interstate about ten miles. I’m a bit of a nervous driver in strange surroundings and I couldn’t figure out how to get to the thruway going in the right direction, but I saw a couple of signs and was following them as best I could when my car hit an icy patch. I was fishtailing back and forth, couldn’t stop the car, but that was all right because it hit a wall and stopped itself. This was on one of those exits ramps to the interstate. I was really jumpy now. Two cars pulled over to help, and one of the helpful drivers called the police so a report could be filed. The two men waited with me a while, and finally I told them I could wait by myself, so I dismissed them. I called my date who seemed only inconvenienced, and his apparent lack of empathy, plus the time that had passed while he waited for me to join him for lunch made me realize this was not going to go the way I’d been imagining. I was not going to meet him at all. All I wanted was the comfort of my own cozy condo in New Paltz.

My car is in the body shop today. It drove fine until about halfway home when the light said COOLANT on the dashboard. I made it home and took it to the shop, hoping repairs would be minor and I might not even file an insurance claim. No such luck. The radiator has to be replaced (explaining the need for coolant), the hood has to be replaced, and who knows what else they’ll find when they look it all over. I am driving a rental car until the damage is assessed and repaired.

But I know this: I’m not going back to check my daily so-called matches on the dating website again. I gave it what we used to call the old college try. And I know if I happen to meet a man who appeals to me, and vice versa, it will probably be the old-fashioned way, by chance, through mutual friends or mutually satisfying activities. I’m not going to force the issue. There is a time for dating and a time when the game is not worth the candle.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Past Lives and Old Questions

Mary Lois Timbes, Merrell Williams Jr., The Glass Menagerie
I was scanning my online NY Times today when I came upon an obituary that hit my heart. Surprised, yes, in that it was of a man I'd known as a youth, with all the promise and energy that entails, a man who had lived a life quite different from the one we who knew him in those days would have dreamed.

Merrell Williams, Jr., of Jackson, MS, was the only one of our group at the Mississippi Southern Summer Theater Program whom I would have bet on as having what it takes to become a movie star. He was the most gifted among us, a natural in the James Dean mode, with a flair for comedy as well as easy access to his passionate nature, along with a lot of charm and ambition--surely as close to a guarantee of success on stage and screen as could be found. After the summer program, he enrolled at Baylor University, which was said to have one of the best theatre departments in the country. We knew his name was Merrell but he was known as Butch in those days.

A few years later I was living in New York and saw his picture in the Times in a coffeehouse production--all the rage in the early 1960s. I just assumed I'd soon see him somewhere onstage or on a big screen. I didn't hear of him again, however, until the late 1980s when he was mentioned on 60 Minutes as a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. I went to the movie The Insider, expecting to see something about him, but the movie was about Jeffrey Wigand, and played by Russell Crowe, who looked a little like Butch and also a little like Wigand. Apparently his life was spent not pounding the pavement looking for acting jobs, but instead riffling through files and copying documents to indict the tobacco industry, behind the scenes.
Merrill Williams Jr. in 1994

In a play early on, one write-up says, he portrayed a chain smoking ad executive, and found himself addicted to cigarettes by the end of it. His parents had both been heavy smokers and his father died young as a result. Butch was a driven sort of guy, and he apparently became obsessed with outing the corporations who profited from the sale of tobacco products, and did his part in exposing much of the corruption in the industry.

He died of a heart attack at his home in Ocean Springs, MS, known as a waterside resort, not unlike Fairhope AL, where I spent my childhood and went for another 20 years before moving back to the Northeast.

Our paths didn't cross again, but he was unforgettable. In many ways I'm proud of what he did do with his time on earth, and yet I get the feeling from what I read about him that he died an embittered man. Part of me wishes he had become a movie star.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Witnessed By the World: A Review

Max Gordon Moore and Charlotte Maier discuss writing a film, while television reprises the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald

Witnessed By the World, the drama previewing in Theatre B in Manhattan’s 59 East 59th Street complex, opens the world of Kennedy assassination theories adding another one to the mix—what did Jack Ruby have in mind when he took out a gun and shot alleged Kennedy shooter Lee Harvey Oswald?

For those of us of a certain age, this was a world event that colored our lifetime, as, with television news turned on as a somber white noise in the days following the brutal murder, we all were witnesses to the event. It was said to be the moment television came of age, but I can’t agree with that since presenting history live for the first time does not seem to have made the medium any more mature in the years that followed. However, that was a moment in which television did its job—immediate, indisputable, horrifying—it brought the complexity of the murderous act into our living rooms. We saw it happen, the world saw it happen, and fifty years later we are still not in complete comprehension of what we did see.

The public by now has largely accepted the Warren Commission’s report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and Jack Ruby acted alone. Two lone rangers playing God, one for his own reasons wanting to eliminate the president of the United States, and the other, for no reason anyone has ever really determined, having the desire and opportunity to eliminate the man who did the deed. Playwrights Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale bring us another possibility in Witnessed by the World, the possibility that both men were employed by the mob to do the jobs they did.

The play is well crafted, introducing an investigative reporter and a young movie screenwriter who are working together to produce a script about Jack Ruby. The reporter, Joan Ross, has had her eye on Ruby for years and feels his story has never been told and should be. The screenwriter does not want to make his mob opus another assassination movie, and insists that the story stops when Ruby makes a trip to Havana. A cast of earnest professionals present the story very persuasively. I would like to have seen the reporter a bit more single-minded in her task, more an aggressive reporter than a nice person. Charlotte Maier was excellent in the role as it was written, but I felt, particularly in the first interview with Ruby's sister (very sympathetically portrayed by Lois Markle), the audience should be aware that Maier, as Joan Ross, is mostly manipulating the older lady to talk more than she wants to. The night I saw it her "befriending" didn't have that edge of "pumping for information" that the scene required. Both actresses are first-rate, and I couldn't tell if it might have been made clearer by rewriting or by direction--or both. Max Gordon Moore (pictured above, and yes, he does look a bit like Woody Allen) does a creditable job of playing the somewhat naive screenwriter.

In a telling moment early in the play, when the reporter is pitching the story, she says, “If you’re looking for an interesting mob figure, I’ve been doing a lot of research on one who has a real story—Jack Ruby!" The movie writer says, “Who?” 

The scene demonstrates the reality that there's been a lot of water under that bridge since the assassination fifty years ago--that there are adults today who don't even know the names of the major players. Maybe the discussions have slacked off, but for years many were never convinced that it was possible that the events came together by accident--two unknown, unconnected, trigger-happy guys could not have unknowingly created the chaos that the waning years of the 20th century became after their actions. I won't spoil the show for you by revealing the authors' theory and its outcome in Witnessed by the World. I'm not totally convinced they are right, but I agree with them that it is time to reopen and reinvestigate the information we do have. I'm told Lynn Scherr will lead a panel discussion after the show on November 22, and there will likely be a number of different conspiracy theories brought to light that evening.

Witnessed by the World will be an intriguing contribution to the discussion. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Theatrical Adventure

For the review of Witnessed by the World, click here.

When I first met Ronnie Cohen, she was a housewife and mommy. It was the early 1980s and her husband, like mine, had gotten a great gig in the international business world, and we all were posted to Geneva. A rising star in the world of advertising, she was now in the business of raising a two-year-old, and in Switzerland to boot.

She contacted me in order to learn if I had a place for her in the theatre group I had started. As a youngster she loved nothing more than going to plays in New York, and she had seen the first two offerings of The Little Theater of Geneva and was looking for something to do.

Ronnie was one of the luckiest finds in all my time in Geneva. She was beautiful, talented, and fun to work with.
At first I had to show her the ropes, but I was doing that with all the expat Americans I could round up to participate. I asked everybody I met if they wanted to get involved--the conversation at a cocktail party might go something like this, "Have you ever been in a play before?" "I played the Christmas tree in the first grade." "Sounds good--we could use a man of your talent and experience!" Because the Americans were looking for things to do, and our crowd were clearly having fun, The Little Theater of Geneva, an American-style community theatre--grew like mad in just a few years. I and many others pulled four plays together, building sets, finding costumes, teaching acting classes, and a number of people who had known nothing about the theatre were now up to their necks in it.

After a couple of years graduating from gopher, troubleshooter, backstage hand, and stage manager, Ronnie asked if she could direct a show. She wanted to do Death Trap. My management style is that basically if I'm sure you know what you're doing, I let you do what you want. She asked me to be her stage manager, I agreed, and she was launched. The next season she took a role in Chapter Two, and she stayed behind the scenes after that until she and her family were transferred back to the States.
Needless to say it was a big loss for the theatre, and for me personally, but we kept in touch, even after I got back to the U.S. When I decided after 20 years in Alabama to return to the New York area, I looked her up. She was now in a high-powered advertising job and writing plays with a collaborator as a sideline. I came into the city to see a couple of her productions off-Broadway.

Tomorrow night, November 9, I'll be doing it again, with a big one. Ronnie and Jane Beale
have written Witnessed by the World, a play about Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

It's previewing at the 59 East 59th Street Theater, and may have a much bigger opening somewhere else very soon. I'll be there with bells on, sequins anyway, bursting with pride and delight at my young friend's success and perseverance. I'm the one behind the scenes now--way behind--but I couldn't be happier for her. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Buster Keaton Has His Day

The face speaks volumes. Never mind that he has long been referred to as a deadpan comic, Buster Keaton learned early on that if he was seen to smile on film, it would ruin everything. He came to play a certain character, a sincere guy trying to prove himself against impossible odds, exhibiting his wondrous skills as an acrobat and visual comedian, without changing facial expression. Things happen to this feckless guy, and he reacts without contorting his face even with a smile. His eyes reflect his emotions and his limber body travels through the story taking the audience with him.

Rosendale Theatre Collective's Sunday Silents series will feature Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr., in a showing this afternoon at 2. It's one of his best, complete with visual effects that are unique to Keaton and have gone down in film history as major accomplishments. If you haven't been exposed to the art of Keaton or if you have little kids in your family who may not know the sheer joy of the silent film, I urge you to attend en masse. You'll laugh, you may even shed a tear for a lost art, and you'll leave the theater a Buster Keaton fan. So will the young people you choose to bring.

Beth Wilson, professor of film at SUNY New Paltz, will be on hand to answer questions and discuss the film at the end of the show. Marta Waterman, local keyboardist, will accompany the movie with a special score.

There will be popcorn, laughter, and you are invited to participate! This is what the Rosendale Theatre Collective is all about.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Frankenstein, One More Time

I am compelled, as they say in horror films, to write just one more post on the National Theatre's version of Frankenstein. I saw the switched-lead cast this afternoon, and I still am reeling.

Everything I wrote about the production starring Benedict Cumberbatch holds for this version. I came away with the same feeling of awe and pride in a theatre that would take itself this seriously on every level. The actors, technical effects, lighting and set design, all were virtually the same in the Jonny Lee Miller production, and the impact both had on me was equal.

The difference was, the second time, that I knew what would happen next. I looked forward to seeing Jonny Lee Miller when he confronts his maker, and watching that particular sparring match was equally thrilling both times. My mind was wrapped up in the arguments--who was the real monster here, the power-mad genius who created the creature, or the creature who has become a killing machine? Maybe because I'd seen it before, I picked up some things in the second viewing, or maybe they were in sharper relief in this production. But I came away clearly aware that the author was telling us that the scientist, who admits he doesn't know what love is like, has actually created a man with a soul more sensitive and self-aware than he is. He must kill the creature not, as he rationalizes, to save those who might be murdered, but because his experiment yielded a more complicated result than he was capable of dealing with. The two are symbiotic by the end, and exist in an existential dance of anger that will echo through the ages.

I suspect Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein was better in the role, illuminating that moment when the monster defines love for him, and maybe Jonny Lee Miller was a better monster as he was imminently watchable in his graceful evolution in the role.

That is to say, I found the Miller-monster version more to my liking, and I'm not 100% clear why. From this day forward I am a fan of both actors, and I have always been a fan of England's National Theatre. Having an institution as precious as this one is a triumph of many arts, and a treasure for a country that has known the true importance of fine theatre throughout its history.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Playing God

Two of the best: Benedict Cumberbatch.Jonny Lee Miller

Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley wrote an earth-shattering book in 1818, putting forth the concept of man’s ego and pursuit of science running away with him, causing him to think himself capable of the undreamed-of feat of cobbling together a living human being out of the scraps of dead ones. Frankenstein is sometimes called the first science fiction novel, and as such, it is a story of science gone wrong—and is fraught with the high drama of the exploits of the most terrifying monster imaginable, one created by man to prove his own worth.

The idea has fascinated us for two centuries now, and will likely do so for more to come. In England’s National Theatre production, presented on screen at the Rosendale Theatre yesterday, the two principle characters—Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he created—appear to be vying for the position of most despicable. They discuss philosophy (unlike  in the beloved 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, this monster can speak, and does so with erudition and eloquence), they spar and try to kill each other, as they debate morality and they both behave like sociopaths.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the monster. He begins life almost as an embryo, in an extraordinary, almost balletic slither across the floor, replete with contortions and spasms until he can stand upright. He is so grotesque we can hardly bear to look at him, and indeed almost everybody who does look at him tries immediately to kill him. He comes upon a remote cottage where a blind man lives and takes him in. This man gives him the education and compassion he needs for a year’s time, and also demonstrates to the monster, by happenstance, that no man is trustworthy or good.

Jonny Lee Miller is convincing as the mad genius who came up with the idea that, with all the tools of modern science, he not only could create a human being from scratch, but he should—for his own personal glory and, he thinks, for the advancement of mankind.

Cumberbatch and Miller are the best of the best, products of the English discipline of theatre. They are extremely intelligent but also extremely emotional, and in control of every gesture and emotion a human being can conjure. They are extraordinary and awe-inspiring to behold; one feels privileged to live in a generation that can see them at their best, alive and creating before our eyes. Both have done extensive television, but like most English actors, they are at their finest on the stage.

The National Theatre production demonstrates the full art of stage production, with fiery lighting, special effects, and an ensemble of first-rate actors to support the leading players. Both the stars are on an equal footing, and all the cast and special effects and technicians serve them by split-second timed changes and  commitment to the show. It is a phenomenon to see.

The second show of the evening was scheduled to be a unique twist—the leading roles switched with Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as his creator. I was emotionally exhausted at the end of the show and not sure I could have tolerated another, obviously equal, version of the same that evening, so I was not 100 per cent looking forward to seeing it again. I was a bit relieved when the announcement was made that the second version hadn’t arrived and the evening screening would be the one we had just seen. There will be another showing on Wednesday; if it is the one will Miller as the monster, I must go again (and will do so with relish), but the production was complete and satisfying as I did see it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cumberbatch and Miller: Together

The two young leading lights of the English theatre, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, will be vying for our attention this afternoon in Rosendale. In the RSC production of Frankenstein, directed by (Slumdog Millionaire) Danny Boyle, the two actors switch roles in the production and offer us a demonstration of the craft of acting, while scaring us silly at the same Halloween time.

In the 2 P.M. showing, the company features Miller as the Monster. I'm a fan of his from the CBS Sherlock Holmes series Elementary, and look forward to seeing the way he tackles the role that made Boris Karloff a household name. As Holmes, he is lithe, quick-minded, and a bit cold--but very different from the lumbering, lost Karloff. I can't wait to see what he does with the challenge of creating a very different creature.

Cumberbatch has also had a turn at Sherlock Holmes, playing in the slick BBC production of the updated mysteries as seen recently on PBS here. His Sherlock was aloof, superior, and, of course, mentally agile as his whole life seemed to be in his mind. He will play Dr. Frankenstein in the 2 P.M. show.

Then, for the 7:15 screening, the boys will each take the other's role and see what he can do with it. An entrancing fancy for anyone who loves the technical aspects of the theatre, and for anybody else, I would think either show would be engrossing--and both would be a knockout.

I'm going to both.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Silents Speak To Us

Yes, they're old, and being old, maybe sometimes out of date. Yes, they're in black and white. And yes, they transcend the medium and present us that rarest gift--pictures of ourselves, past, present, and, if the human race is fortunate, future.

I'm talking about silent movies. I am enamored of them, and particularly those of Buster Keaton, and particularly Steamboat Bill, Jr., which will shall see at the Rosendale Theatre on November 3 at 2 P.M. Keaton is acknowledged now as a genius director, actor, and comedian. His face in repose (and it was almost always in repose) telegraphs volumes. We empathize; we care about whatever character he is bringing us. So much more than a "deadpan comic," Keaton portrays courage, romance, perseverance, and the pursuit of happiness in the most serious way. 

His own courage is legendary. He came from vaudeville, knockabout pratfall comedy, and his physical grace is apparent in every stunt. In his time, movies were made quickly, actors did their own stunts--and they risked their lives for an effect time after time. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton repeats a sight gag he had created for a short called "One Week." in which he is standing facing the camera and the facade of a house falls on him. It's an impossible effect to describe, and only takes a moment of the movie, but it was so good in "One Week" that it simply had to be preserved and performed a second time, and it was in this movie. The reality is it was one of those times when Keaton could have been killed had his timing been off for a second or if he had been less fleet of foot in hitting his mark.  He actually broke his neck once performing a stunt in a movie, and he had many mishaps throughout his career. He is sheer heaven to watch in a race scene (my own favorite is in Seven Chances, as he is being chased by seven would-be brides and a half-ton boulder, down a steep hill and into a field), or jumping across buildings, or getting himself out of a jam with superhuman agility of body and mind. Though his face remains for the most part almost immobile, he transmits whole stories through those magnificent eyes. You can read his mind.

It is said that the Civil War story The General was his greatest film, and maybe it was, but to me the vitality and invention of his other work defies comparison. I think I've seen most of them, but it's been 40 years since I saw Steamboat Bill, Jr. I'm as excited as a kid to see it again. The Rosendale Sunday Silents series gives us a chance to experience silent cinema with live music, (provided by local favorite Marta Waterman), fresh popcorn, and a room full of friendly neighbors, young and old, waiting to be astonished. 

I hope you'll join us! If you see me, come talk to me about your reaction to this old gem. Beth Wilson, a professor in SUNY New Paltz's film department, will be on hand to answer questions afterward. With enough enthusiastic response, maybe Rosendale's Sunday Silents series will expand and expose more and more people to the special world of classic silent movies.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Kennedys and a Different World

It's the time of year when everybody's talking about it again. New books are released, new movies come out, television shows footage and pictures, and everybody wants to know: Did we ever learn the true story of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination? If not, will we?

CBS This Morning, interviewing the writer of a new book about the assassination, showed the statistic revealing that 85% of the American people view Kennedy as one of the greatest American presidents. In view of the unpopularity of Barack Obama in some circles and my admiration for this president, a man I see as an example of grace under tremendous pressure, I find this statistic heartening. I want to tell you what it was like where I was when JFK was killed.

I was living in Atlanta and had a baby just over a year old. We were living in a garage apartment behind a big house on Springdale Road, with our futures bright and our hopes high for having such a young, vital and attractive couple in the White House. My husband and I were that rare thing, Southern Liberals, and we endured the injustice of the Jim Crow mentality at every turn--and had all our young lives--but were not engaged politically in such a way as to try to do anything about it.

Atlanta was very segregated then, and the only hope was that there was a crusading newspaper under the leadership of the brilliant Ralph McGill and a bright businessman named Ivan Allen was mayor. Lurking in the background, and joke to the smart people in town, was a little troll named Lester Maddox, who ran a fried chicken restaurant and ran ads in the newspaper that were little more than racist rants. Maddox handed out free ax handles in the parking lot of his restaurant for his loyal customers to use to club any Negroes (and that wasn't the way he pronounced it) who might try to get into his restaurant.

My father-in-law was a doctor in Dothan, Alabama, and he passionately opposed the encroaching "socialized medicine" initiative that would be called the Medicare program--as did all loyal members of the American Medical Association. My husband got in constant discussions with his sister, who attended Auburn University at that time, on the subjects of Civil Rights protests (she didn't approve) and the Kennedy family (she disliked and feared them intensely). There was no reaching these people about JFK and Jackie, much less about what they saw as the dynasty he was building.

The atmosphere in the South was similar to what it is now: Hatred and fear of the president and his programs. We have suffered so much upheaval and agony since the Kennedy years that those halcyon days seem almost pleasant now, but they weren't. The stress I endure every day now was fresh then, anticipating as it did events and personalities that would be much worse than we could have imagined. There are many things Kennedy did wrong in his short tenure as POTUS, but he was not allowed to become what he might have had he been allowed a longer life. The very things for which he was despised in his time he is now admired for. I take a little solace in that, because I've seen it happen before. A man doing his absolute best every minute he is at the helm, vilified and misrepresented, fifty years later being considered a hero to 85% of the people he governs.

Hope and change? Barack Obama has not been able to effect the change he promised. But he instilled enough hope in me that I can say in 50 years or possibly sooner, the world will know and respect his inordinate ability to do what he can under the most adverse of circumstances. At least, just perhaps 85% will.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Adventures via GPS

My new abode is in a challenging location. That's why, with my new-used car, I was happy to receive a GPS device for Christmas last year. I use it often. The GPS itself is sometimes challenged by my directions, but usually it gives me a good trip anyway.

In the last couple of days I've needed it. I had to run some errands in Kingston Thursday, so I set the GPS for the first address, out on Flatbush Road. Flatbush Road? Up here it is not a boulevard, as it it in Brooklyn, but it a road that goes on and on. The voice on the GPS went silent after a while and I decided maybe she had given up on me. I gave up on her because all I saw was signs to Rhinebeck and I did not want to go to Rhinebeck, so I began making turns...GPS found me and began directing me back to the route I had left, and to my ultimate destination. I got there and found it was not the place of business I needed, but got human directions there and headed to the right place at last.

It was a little print shop called "The Copy Hut," where I found a most helpful staffer who said they'd happily print a poster for my novel, and all I had to do was go home and email him the files. I said, "If this costs over $100, I'm not going to do it, and he said it would be more like $19, so we're in business. This is fun for me, working with printers, posters, and old-fashioned promotions like that. I've done it for years, sometimes in French. It's well in my comfort area--and by the end of the week I should have a poster to mail to the bookstore to help them promote That Was Tomorrow.

I have it in the back of my mind that I'm househunting. I love the condo I'm renting, and when my lease is up in January I'm going to offer to buy it, but if I can't I may well buy something else. There is the possibility something suitable will come up in this complex, and I'm looking at that. But I do check out houses from time to time on Craigs List. A couple of them came up that I thought I'd explore yesterday. One was said to be in New Paltz but an address I didn't recognize on a street I'd never heard of. I checked out the route and it's not that far from this address. So I programmed my GPS and took off for it yesterday afternoon. I was well past the time of the open house, and only intended give the exterior of the house a gander.

The drive was extraordinarily beautiful. A few turns, a number of hills, dozens of old-fashioned, elegant houses, through lanes and bosky dells whose trees showed early touches of autumn color--and I was in heaven on earth. The deeper I drove the more convinced I was that I would never be interested in owning this house, buried so far from civilization. I pictured the snowdrifts and ice that are sure to come in a few months, making my attractive drive not perhaps less beautiful, but certainly all but inaccessible for days at a time. And a house--I do not need to worry about the upkeep of a country house at this point in my life. But I can dream, can't I?

I took a different, non-GPS-guided route home, passing a huge farm with a gorgeous red barn, rolling hills with sheep and horses--breathtaking!

Thanks to GPS I'm more independent than ever, and can take drives with no particular purpose other than exploring my new neighborhood. I'm looking forward to more days like that one.

Friday, September 20, 2013

New Hope in New Paltz

Some six years ago I wrote a blog called "Finding Fair Hope" from the little town of Fairhope, Alabama.  I deliberately split the name of the town into two components, to expand my reach beyond just writing about the town itself, and in order to write sometimes of fairness and sometimes of hope as well.

I loved the scope of that blog, and kept site meters active in searching the whereabouts of my readers and the words they chose that led them to my postings. I was especially taken aback when, according to my tracker, someone typed this phrase into Google “please give me hope that god is fair” and was directed to the Fair Hope blog.

The person who typed that desperate phrase was not sent to the posts I had made on the nature of God, the soul, and the relationship of man to the universe. You probably know that a search engine’s spider can zero in on a word or group of words and locate any number of ephemeral or peripheral mentions of the word or words you want to search. Thus, some seeking hope that God or anything else be fair, might be sent to a blog called "Finding Fair Hope."

The person with this poignant wish came to this blog on a day when I was rhapsodizing about the weather and even the opportunities for romance at sunset and didn’t stay long enough to check out the many opinions voiced here about whether there is hope that God is fair.

For the record I shall try to answer that question now. In my opinion there is some kind of force that I am not uncomfortable calling god, with or without the capital letter. This force needs a name, and long ago man gave it the name “god” and I don’t think even with all that baggage that identity has accumulated that we have come up with anything better. The problem is that the name is so old, it has literally grown a beard, as we used to say about old stories in the newspaper game. It carries with it a human picture. “God” appears to be a man, although, as Margaret Atwood has pointed out, never in the Bible does the image appear as a man – it appears as a burning bush, or in any number of guises, not including a male human being. But when Leonardo and others wanted to paint a picture, they referred to the old pictures of the god of gods--Zeus--who dwelt in the clouds and carried a handful of lightning bolts for added impact, as if that were needed. That guy also had a long white beard.

Today when we want to be iconoclastic, we say, “I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a long white beard,” but that is not the concept of a higher power anyway. There are people to whom those old paintings reveal the face of God, but to deny that we are moved by them is not to deny the existence of God – or even to prove that we are deep thinkers. It’s simply Step One in the process of examining the question. This is what I do not believe. What do I believe?

Do I believe that “god is fair”? I’m afraid I have to answer no to that one. I assume the question comes from someone who wants a specific thing from life, and has observed that less deserving people seem to get all they want. If there is a god, why does “he” do things this way?

Some say that he gives us the lessons we need. I think even that is too pat an answer. There are far too many people who never get any lessons at all, or appear not to. All too often, they are the ones with all the stuff. We don’t know what is happening in their life, but we know they have done bad things to acquire what they have, and we tell ourselves that “what goes around comes around.” Unfortunately, I haven’t seen this to be true either.

I read a wonderful book review today by Margaret Atwood, who, to my mind is one of the most refreshing women in the world today.  I think I could say I'd like to be her when I grow up. Reading her words about Stephen King's latest novel reminded me of this post on the "Fair Hope" blog. About that time she was discussing faith and reason with Bill Moyers. There is no better person alive to make those topics come to life--in a novel, a poem, a television interview, or in my livingroom if she would just drop in for a visit.

She claimed to be a committed agnostic, and made the statement that atheism is a religion. Ha ha. I love that, and agree with her. Ha ha, because those I know who claim to be atheists would hate that characterization -- but Atwood says, it is a belief, therefore it is a religion. As a committed agnostic, she admits the possibility that God may or may not exist, and that her commitment allows discussion of the matter. She says we believe what we are comfortable believing, and that that is a choice we make because it works for us. An atheist believes--because he demands proof--in a negative. An agnostic simply wonders and investigates, not looking for proof so much as for belief. And a believer is happy with his choice -- there is something he just knows is there. I think that's what she said, but I was half asleep as I watched. It may just have been my own conclusion.

Where is the hope, then? It’s inside you, if you are a human being. It is hope that is making you ask the question. Through the power of organized religion and traditional upbringing, many of us are conflicted by even having doubts that what we were told is true. We expect that guy in the clouds to release the lightning bolts our way.

If the person who asked the Internet about fairness ever came back to the blog, I never knew of it. I tried to keep an open, healthy discussion of the question going. For now, let this be my answer: There are times in life when a re-examination of one’s expectations is required. There are times when we all feel hopeless and hurt. It is part of the condition of life on this human plane, which no amount of examination can adequately define. We are created to ask and not get answers. But in the Pandora’s box there is also that last element, all too often left behind. We are also, as human beings, endowed with hope.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Drive Through the State

We had never been to the western part of New York, so my daughter Alison and I were excited to make a visit to two historical sites, Matilda Joslyn Gage Home and Museum in Fayetteville and on to Seneca Falls. You read on this blog my introduction to Mrs. Gage via a show at the Rosendale. After that I contacted Sally Roesch Wagner, curator of the Gage Home and Museum, sent her a copy of That Was Tomorrow, and told her I wanted to visit her museum.

The Gage Museum is unique; set in a home, it is rife with information about the Underground Railroad, the birth of the women's suffrage organizations, later to be known as the Feminist Movement, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tribe which Gage studied, worked with, and was admitted to as a member of the Wolf Clan. Gage lived from 1826 to 1898, was an early friend to Susan B. Anthony, and with Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the first exhaustive history of the suffrage movement in the United States. She ran the day-to-day operations of the National Women's Suffrage Association from its inception until 1889. Her opposition, as the movement began to take hold, to the admission of the Temperance-and-Fundamentalist factions into the organization, caused the others to vote her out of power and essentially to remove her from their ranks.

I am especially touched by unsung heroes and heroines, like Gage and education visionary Marietta Johnson, so Matilda has a special place in my heart.  Alison and I sat and talked with Sally for what may have been hours--and we could have gone on for many more had there been time. Sally told me she loved That Was Tomorrow, and I gave her a copy of The Fair Hope of Heaven. She is working on a biography of Matilda Joslyn Gage that I cannot wait to read.

The next day we drove on to Seneca Falls, missing the President by just a couple of days. This is the birthplace of the early women's organizations, and the town is bursting with Women's History museums, as well as the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is in a beautiful canal setting, with tree-lined and old houses, and the atmosphere of Americana all about. We learned a lot, talked about what we were learning, and stretched the drive home by driving back roads through hills and valleys and surprisingly magnificent rural scenery.

New York State has much to offer, and much of it is not what you would expect.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Memories of Woodstock

Woodstock, the Woodstock (meaning the music festival in Bethel) was 44 years ago this weekend. I wasn't there but it changed my life just as it did everybody's.

This is what I wrote on my blog "Finding Myself in Hoboken" a few years ago. Living so close to both Bethel and Woodstock, I find myself thinking of it again today.

I was older than those who flocked to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, NY, not far outside the village of Woodstock 40 years ago this weekend. Being just ahead of the baby boomers, I have been observing their behavior all my life, and here was the seminal event for them, a gathering of thousands in a peaceful, chaotic, scary, sexy, drug-enhanced weekend of the music and musicians that resonated to their very souls. I saw ads for the upcoming concert in the New York Times, and thought it seemed like an amazing event.

In those days I loved the protest rock music of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and the many like them. Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Joe Cocker were beyond me. I have been a square since before it was cool not to be and I've never quite shaken it. As to music, although there were many performers I would have love to have heard, the venue of a huge outdoor concert didn't appeal to me. (If you don't know what "square" means, that's pretty much it in a nutshell.) I was old enough to think about my creature comforts.

But thousands weren't. They were the boomers--the engaged, the sincere, the aching kids distraught at the prospect of the quicksand of Viet Nam and the injustices they saw all around them in the world of grownups--and they outnumbered my own silent generation by a long shot. Many of them went to Woodstock '69 as innocents just wanting to hear the music and be with their friends and significant others; many returned transformed into to young men and women who would take us all on. We on the outside read news reports and heard on the broadcast media and were impressed and relieved that, despite the lack of facilities or bedrooms, in spite of the rain, mobs, and mud, and even though there was some use of controlled substances, a mood of controlled peace and love prevailed.

That generation wore their hair longer than we did. All the girls bore the same hairstyle--long, parted in the middle and straight as a poker. Now their boyfriends did too, although some of them had curl in their hair and they would not iron it as the girls did. After Woodstock, this "look" was with us for a decade. It was a Woodstock look, a "hippie" look, a defiant look that clashed with any that was different. In a way, it was at least as conformist as the look it seemed to protest.

Woodstock was the crystallization of many things for this country. Because it was about music, primarily, and because much of the music was political, a generation was politicized as none had been before. Many who were not hippies before Woodstock became so after it. All of us had to take notice; the world was upside down and parents were forced to listen to their children. Those who hadn't been to Woodstock behaved as if they had. The upheavals and protests on college campuses took on a different tone, and life in these United States would not be the same.

Was it good? On balance, probably so. What really happened was that the rest of us had to accept the dominance of this generation of post-war babies, like it or not. Now that we've had enough time, I would say I like it. But I'm glad I'm still square.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reflections of Another Place

It's not that New Paltz doesn't occupy a unique niche in my consciousness. It's not that I'm getting old and everything reminds me of something from the past. It's not, I repeat not, that I'm hung up on the little town where I grew up, where "all the women were strong, all the men were good looking, and all the children were above average." The little town where I grew up--Fairhope, Alabama--was full of nice people, some of them smarter than others, but almost all were a little off-center.

After I left Fairhope for good I was so haunted by the way it used to be I began writing about it. I had written about it before on my blog "Finding Fair Hope," in which I often philosophied not only about the town but about the concept of combining "fair" and "hope" in one place. My first book of recollections was written in collaboration with Robert E. Bell, and entitled after his book The Butterfly Tree, which was a novel about some of the eccentrics he had run into in the town in the early 1950s. Our book Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree covered some of the same ground and included letters we had sent to one another. Bob never lost his fantasies about the town and I felt Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree was hostage to those fantasies, so I rewrote it and retitled it The Fair Hope of Heaven, alluding to the utopian vision of the founders of the town.

The Fairhope of my childhood was unpolished and bare, a haven for seekers of all kinds of dreams. It was attractively located on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, where sunsets were spectacular and by all rights dreams were destined to come true. Unfortunately, dreams so seldom do come true as we imagine them that many people over the years came to be disillusioned with Fairhope, and as they did so, they left, only to be replaced by a new crop of people with something else in mind entirely.

It is now highly decorated, highly focused, and highly productive. A horticulturist changes out flowers on every street corner on a regular basis, and establishments move in with alarming alacrity to capitalize on the town's tourist population. Events are frequent and well-organized, money is flowing in, and everybody claims to be ecstatically happy. This is something that would astound and probably not please the founders. I can only speak for myself. This is not an aspect of the new Fairhope that pleases me very much.

I miss the smattering of genuine eccentrics who used to walk around in odd clothes or with beards and/or bare feet. I miss the give-and-take of honest debate, the lifelong feuds and making-up. I miss the forums and the fire of conflict on philosophical subjects.

In New Paltz I see something similar to the Fairhope I recall. There is a contained smallness to the community, interesting offerings at the library and the local amateur theater. There is a scruffiness, an almost-bohemian savoir-faire.  Its resemblance to my childhood home is heartwarming to me. It has an authenticity that cannot be papered over by the influx of too much money and too little taste. I have fair hope for it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Changed the World Yesterday

It was a little hard to sleep last night. I wasn't uncomfortable. I wasn't overwrought. My mind was racing, however. I had just changed the world.

When I grew up in a little Southern town (Fairhope, AL, pop. 3,000) in the 1950s, I attended a radical private school where children played freely and had lessons out of doors as often as possible. Folk dancing and arts-and-crafts were required courses along with traditional academic subjects. Fairhope had been founded as a utopian community in the 1890s, to demonstrate the efficacy of Henry George's theory of the single tax, and from its inception it attracted reformers of just about every stripe. My school was founded by Marietta Johnson, whose name was a household word in her lifetime, and is all but forgotten today. Along with the other personages who inhabited early Fairhope, Mrs. Johnson was convinced she could save the world.

I've come and gone to Fairhope many times over the years. I returned to live when my husband retired in 1988. For most of the 19 years I remained, I was haunted by the village Fairhope once had been, the school itself in its glory days, and the ghost of Marietta Johnson. I worked at a museum honoring Mrs. Johnson and while there was instrumental in getting a statue of her erected in a prime beauty spot on the bluff overlooking Mobile Bay. I was on the board of managers of the school and planned its 100th reunion in 2007. I wrote a book called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, celebrating the town and the characters who set it apart in my memory. I envisioned the book as a sort of Lake Wobegone Days with a single-tax slant.

Then I left. I moved back to the Northeast, but Fairhope really never left me. I began to write about the Fairhope I remembered, revising Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree and titling the new version The Fair Hope of Heaven. Then I went to work on a novel set in Fairhope in 1921-22, about a young schoolteacher who moves to Fairhope to work with Marietta Johnson. I didn't intend the book to be about Mrs. Johnson, but she let me know she had to be a major part of any book about Fairhope in that day.

That Was Tomorrow was first released as an eBook, but is now available in paperback. I am in Fairhope promoting sales, and I yesterday I gave my second talk about the book, this time at the Marietta Johnson Museum. Excitement was so high at this talk, which was attended for the most part by educators (maybe 40 of them), that even I was caught up in the revival spirit. The school has not been thriving in recent years, and the prospect of a new director is always a shot in the arm. The incoming director was at my talk--an upbeat, capable lady for whom we all have high hopes. She will be running the school officially as of January 2014.

Yes, it was hard to sleep last night. This director says she was inspired to take the job after reading That Was Tomorrow. People here are snapping up the book like hot cakes. Everywhere I speak there are intelligent, concerned questions from old-timers and newcomers alike, and I feel as if I have changed the world. I'll let you know how it goes. Maybe I'll even pay for the publication of That Was Tomorrow, but if I don't break even it will have been worth it to have a shot at changing the world.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Hearts and Souls

I haven't been involved in theatre since--when? 1996, when we wound up Jubilee Fish Theatre with a few seasons of A Christmas Carol, and my longtime steady stage manager, directing, had a meltdown and bawled me out because his actors disappointed him? Or was it my swansong when I played Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa at the local amateur theater in Alabama? Whatever it was, time went by and I wasn't doing that anymore. I drifted away from the theatre, the love of my life. I had burned myself out, invested and lost my own money, and just didn't have the heart to keep it up.

At that time, my daughter had told me she was pregnant, and I knew my life was changing for good. A grandchild was a new responsibility, and Alison needed all the emotional and every other kind of support I could muster for her. I couldn't keep throwing money at my theatre, which was foundering anyway, never having found solid sponsorship except for a few donors and myself. There is only so long you can go on beating a dead horse.

In 2006 I left Alabama and moved back to the Northeast. I chose the wonderful city of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was exhilarated by being close enough to visit my daughter and two grandsons often and get to New York to plays as often as I liked. At first I went to plays all the time. I met the two women who ran a local theatre and we hit it off. I even won four free tickets to a great off-Broadway comedy and took the two of them along with me. There was no real place for me in their theatre, but I wrote reviews of their shows for my Hoboken blog and they came to count on me to do that. I still get hits on some of those posts.

In New Paltz I met Ann Citron, a local theatrical type who is Managing Director of the Rosendale Theatre Collective, and she asked if I might be interested in either appearing in their annual fund-raising Short Play Festival, or in directing a couple of the plays. I hadn't done a play in 15 years and really had sort of given up on it. I love the theatre with a love that brings me to tears, but, except as an audience member, didn't even think about being involved again. Without thinking, I told her that maybe I would.

The Short Play Festival is very well managed. It has a routine, a machinery that I was unfamiliar with. There are three directors of the plays, and a contest for the best 10-minute play on the given theme (this year: The Movies) is held, seven to nine plays selected, and auditions are held for the actors. The three of us sorted out the best-written plays that best fit the theme and cast the actors, having one week of intense rehearsal time to get the show on the boards. I knew such an endeavor would have to be chaotic, but it has been pretty smooth, considering all the things that could go wrong. All my experience in the theatre has taught me to roll with punches I could not have anticipated.

I've whipped you through the process fast, but indeed it goes fast. We are at the end of the second week and our short plays will open tonight. I'm directing one of my new local heros, the hilarious Doug Motel, about whom I've written a blog post here. Christa Trinler, a beautiful actress who, it appears, can do anything she's asked--from over-the-top farcical comedy to tender relationship plays, is in two of my plays, working with  two of the most talented young actors I've ever worked with.
One is Stephen Balantzian, a theatre teacher at SUNY New Paltz, and the other is Sean Marrinan,
who has a list of professional credits as long as his arm. The talent pool of artists, actors and writers here is astonishing and delightful.

There have been few bumps and most of them were in my own head. I was on familiar ground but not accustomed to handing the reins over to managers, technical experts, and the support system that is in place in a more ideal company than any I ever created. I just hoped I got it right--and from the word go, I saw that my actors were going to pull this off.

If you're in the New Paltz-Rosendale area this weekend, drop by the Rosendale Theatre tonight or tomorrow night at 8, or Sunday at 3. I promise you laughs and a heartwarming feeling of community doing what it knows how to do and loving every minute of getting together for events like this. You may see me around, kvelling in the background and feeling lucky to be where I am.

Oh, that grandson is 18 now. His grandma has taken him to a lot of plays in the city and he and his 15-year-old brother bring a lot of joy into their grandma's life. So, it would seem, does the Rosendale Theatre Collective.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pencils With Erasers

One the the first lessons I learned as an aspiring actress was a practical one: Always bring a pencil with an eraser to rehearsals. Simple.

When you're walking around with a script in your hand, writing the stage directions in the margins of your script, as dictated by your director and duly recorded by the stage manager--and to which you are expected to adhere as rehearsals progress--that lead pencil is all-important. The eraser as much so, maybe more, because these original moves are likely to be changed.

Insecure in my early days, I used the blocking of the movements as a safety net. Knowing where I was standing and when I moved to which exact point on the stage was my security blanket. I found I remembered lines in relation to where I was when I said them. For the first years I worked as a neophyte thespian I was stiff as a board, bound to the moves and concentrating on all the wrong things to protect myself against the right ones, that is, trying to make it look as if I knew what I was doing while making myself as impervious as possible to emotion. Spontaneity and improvisation terrified me. I don't know how I ever got cast, but I suspect it was in spite of my rigid adherence to blocking. I took Alfred Lunt's advice to actors ("Speak in a loud clear voice and don't bump into the furniture") literally and was confident that if I could do nothing else I could do that. I always carried a pencil with an eraser, too, so I could record the changes from above and not move a muscle I wasn't told to.

Years later I learned (seat-of-the-pants, the way I learn most everything) to direct plays. My first admonition to actors, stage managers, all people who show up at the early rehearsals, was "Bring a pencil with an eraser." It is important even if the actors are not as tied to blocking as I once was. Details must be written down, even if they will be changed soon after.

I was founder of The Little Theater of Geneva, an American community theater in Switzerland, and saw to it that everybody showed up at rehearsals with pencils with erasers, and, in case somebody didn't, the stage manager had a stash of them to dispense. Later, back home in Fairhope, Alabama, I was founding director of Jubilee Fish Theater, an Equity theater based in my hometown. In both jobs I was in charge--selected the plays, cast them (sometimes in NYC with professionals) and directed almost all of them. I was in one or two myself. The buck stopped with me and I had to do a lot of the tasks usually taken by others in the smooth-clicking machine that is theater.

Landing in New Paltz, all that was a few years in the rear view mirror. I had attended a lot of Broadway and off-Broadway shows while living in Hoboken, but the local theatre there was small and didn't really have a place for me. I wrote reviews of their shows on my blog "Finding Myself in Hoboken."

I connected early on when I got here with the cozy Rosendale Theatre Collective. Lunch with Managing Director Ann Citron bagged me an invitation to join the group
Stephen Balantzian and Christa Trinler, rehearsing "Titanic"
s Short Play Festival as a director. We hit it off and I am on two committees as well as directing three ten-minute original plays that will be seen July 5, 6, and 7 at the Rosendale. The show is expertly run and the plays are first rate. I am thrilled with my actors, but I confess a little apprehension the first time I met with the cast for the first of my shows. Did I still have it? Would I convey the authority to direct these young pros? Am I over the hill, or will my ideas strike them as hokey and old-hat? I would bring pencils with erasers to the first rehearsal to show them the way we used to do it in the old days.

I needn't have bothered. The pair showed up, raring to go and cooperative on every level. And they brought their own pencils, with erasers.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Just Around the Corner

The park above symbolizes Rosendale to me; beautiful, peaceful, with something wonderful just out of sight, just around the corner.

Around my corner is the Short Play Festival. It's a presentation of original ten-minute plays about movies. We're well into the planning stage, having read some first-rate scripts, auditioned excellent actors, and awaiting our first rehearsals later this month. Such a project requires expert organization and intense coordination, but the team of directors (of which I am the newbie) is working together like a well-oiled machine that enjoys what it's doing. We've met together to talk it over and I'm scoping out the territory while being scoped out at the same time. My companions on the team know the lay of the land and are hoping--as only theatre people can hope--that I shall fit in and provide a new voice for future festivals. I join them in that aura of hope.

The plays we've chosen are excellent. Most are two-handers but two are monologues. The show will be rounded off with an original song about falling in love at the movies (and learning you're a lesbian), and a ten-minute documentary film about the productions. There are love stories, spat stories, a didactic lecture by the ever-exuberant Doug Motel, family-unit stories and stories about people actually making a film. Something for everyone. I'm directing one about a couple in the process of natural childbirth while discussing the merits of the movie TITANIC; a discussion of acting styles between a hilariously demanding movie director and his clueless starlet--and the third one is a monologue by the one-man dynamo that is Mr. Motel teaching a class in Film 101.

I search my soul as I get back into directing plays. I found a few old resumés that remind me of how many times I've done this--as producer-director of The Little Theater of Geneva and at Jubilee Fish Theater in Fairhope, Alabama--and how well I did--and how much fun it all was. And meeting my professional-level actors I am certain that the work is not going to be difficult. In fact, it's going to be fun for all of us.

Writing this, I can't help hoping you are somewhere in the Rosendale NY area, and will be around for the show, which will run July 5, 6, and 7. It is a fund-raiser, and it's going to be a hit. In the meantime, I'm getting back to work.

Monday, May 27, 2013

How Great Is This Gatsby?

I went with my friend Georgette to the local cineplex to see the new Baz Lurmann version of The Great Gatsby. The movie had to show me a lot, as I am a fan of the book and was not a fan of the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

I carped about the casting: Leonardo DiCaprio, although a fine actor, didn't have the suggestion of a hidden past as say, a younger Jon Hamm or Johnny Depp might. Carey Mulligan wasn't pretty enough to be the decorative trophy Gatsby wanted and I required. Tobey Maguire was a little too eccentric to portray the bland narrator, Nick Carraway. My nephew, Will Friedwald, jazz columnist and popular music expert, had written a column outlining the very specific songs F. Scott Fitzgerald had woven into his book, and he objected to the anachronistic interpolation of new tunes and even Rhapsody in Blue (which was written years after The Great Gatsby takes place) into this story.

I expected the mishmash to be a repulsive mess. But then I recalled how much I had loved Lurmann's mishmash called Moulin Rouge years ago. I announced, "It won't be Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, and it won't be my Gatsby, but maybe it's worth a look."

I loved everything about the movie. Well, maybe the parties were overlong and not that interesting unless I had been imbibing whatever the partygoers were--but that's a small thing in such a big picture.  The sets and costumes--although maybe not pinpointed to 1921, but more of a generic 1920's mode for effect--were dazzling and quaint at the same time. The 20's hadn't really begun to roar at that point, but the era was waking up. It makes a better movie if you push some of those things around a little, like the Rhapsody in Blue even if it had not yet been written. Such a rhapsody was swirling around Jay Gatsby, taunting him, spurring his aspirations.

DiCaprio showed me things about Gatsby I had not grasped before. I had seen him as a clueless climber, looking at Daisy through the rose-colored haze of a man in love with a face, a look, a semblance of the one thing he thought mattered: Money. DiCaprio's Gatsby was smitten with something more--his dream of the life he wanted, his fantasy of the woman who would make his hopes and dreams worthwhile. He loved her because he thought she was the key to happiness. He thought, because of the social position she was born into, that her love could transform him into his own dream of a man. And Leonardo DiCaprio accomplished this acting feat mostly by the way he looked at her--the yearning, the fear of missing the mark, the total inability to see how shallow and uninteresting she really was. He conveyed all of Gatsby's yearning and fear just with the look on his face.

Carey Mulligan was almost pretty enough, but she gave this Daisy something else instead. She was neurotic. I thought Daisy was a lightweight who had nothing going for her but looks, but at least Ms. Mulligan imbued her with a sense of conflict about what she was to do. Not a conscience, but an awareness that there might be something immoral going on here. Tobey Maguire is always engaging, and he was in this but he added an undercurrent of thwarted passion. Elizabeth Debicki was spot-on, a stunning Jordan Baker. The one wrong note in casting was Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. He had no old-money charm or indolence--in fact the actor might have done better as the service station guy. I would have thought he would have had to be at least good-looking to have landed Daisy. And why they cast Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim I shall never understand.

But the principals carried the show. I admit I wasn't totally on board until the shirt scene, which I was waiting for with bated breath, certain they wouldn't get it right. They got it exactly right.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

In a Beautiful Place

Let me say that basically I am an optimistic person. Not, I think, to the point of being unreasonably sanguine on every subject, but I tend to have a good time even when bad things are happening. I've had my share of tragedy and stress over the years, but somehow I remain upbeat.

That's why it isn't extraordinary that I love my new life in New Paltz. But something has come over me. I look around as I drive through the beautiful spring-green surroundings--from one event or meeting to the next, inhaling the fragrance of fresh-mown grass--and the realization hits me: I am happier than I have been in years.

My daughter persuaded me to make the move a few months ago. I  had finally accepted that the tiny apartment I had bought in Hoboken was inadequate for my life. Pretty and well-decked out with amenites, it was too small at 530 sq. feet to have more than one couple over at a time, a bit of an awkward location as I had to walk everywhere, and my arthritic knees were getting worse; and then there was Hurricane Sandy, which wiped out the summer clothes and the hot water heater I had in the basement. I was thinking about relocating in Hoboken to a bigger place--which would be a bigger monthly payout whether bought or rented. I was ready to do it.

The real difference was that it was my daughter who wanted me. She really wanted me nearer, and as long as I was sure I would move, it was enormously appealing to move where I was wanted. Hoboken had been pleasant. I had met some very congenial, interesting people--but the town hadn't put its arms around me. Alison and her family, my wonderful grandsons, her new partner and his wonderful 20-year-old son, honestly wanted me nearby. I liked the area and had always admired New Paltz out the bus window when I visited them in Kingston. It was reason enough to make the move.

So I packed up and moved December 1. After being here a couple of months Alison, knowing my fondness for Buster Keaton, urged me to attend a matinee of The Cameraman at the Rosendale Theatre one Saturday. She said she loved attending movies at The Rosendale, and that it was run by volunteers who seemed to be my type of people.  My experience at that event was so heartwarming that I wrote a blogpost about it.

If you scroll through this blog at the posts since then you'll see how important The Rosendale has become in my life. I've been to meetings, joined committees, had lunches--and even helped a virtuoso actor a little with his one-man show. And I'm on a team producing a fund-raising festival of one-act plays next month.

I'm back in love--this time with a place, with a mood, with a raft of projects. Spring came, and with its melted snow, a happy feeling of anticipation. My grandsons are big, strapping boys with plans and hopes, Alison is conquering her own world, and I wake up feeling better than I have in years.

I'm adding years to my life, too. Just ask my doctor. My knees are improved (not so much pounding of the pavement, more hours at the gym), and I've reduced my intake of cookies and cake. Who needs them? I'm feasting on well-being.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Getting Back in Show Business

I'm looking for audition pieces. Just to keep my hand in, I think I'll audition for the Short Play Festival to be held in New Paltz the weekend after July 4. So.

That means I must find a meaty monologue and work on it. I have unopened cartons of books in a closet, and at least two of them are play scripts. Lots of good parts for women there, some roles I've done in the past--surely there is something appropriate for an audition at this point.

I find a script of a play I wanted to do about a year before I left Fairhope. The play was Gertrude Stein and a Companion, and I was interested in playing Gertrude. Hard to face the fact that, with my added years and girth, it would be a role for me--but I liked the play and found a "companion," an actress who really loved Stein and Alice B. Toklas, her longtime "wife." We toyed with the script, found a director, started to have meetings about finding a base from which to operate. It was not the kind of thing done by the local amateur group, but I had put together a number of such groups in different places, and I was excited about getting back in the theatre. To make a long story short, the production never happened, but I ended up with a lot of Gertrude Stein material and a couple of copies of the script.

For the Short Play Festival audition I started working on a Gertrude Stein monologue but it was harder to learn than usual. Besides, it didn't quite showcase me in the way I wanted. I thought the character was too limited for an audition piece unless I was auditioning for the role of Gertrude Stein or somebody just like her. Maybe I could add another monologue, for instance, Amanda's "gentleman caller" speech from The Glass Menagerie. I played that role in a summer production in college--yes, I was 18 years old--and I felt so haunted by the role I thought it would be easy to relearn it. But to do two monologues? Neither of which really applies, either to me or to the upcoming production? Just didn't feel right.

I remembered The Gingerbread Lady. I played in that one twice.
As Evy in The Gingerbread Lady, Geneva, 1984
Once, when I was in my late 40s and again some ten years later. This is 20 years after that--and I'm quite long in the tooth for the role. But I think there's a lot of Evy still in me and I'm sure I can capture it. So I scrounged through the cartons and found an old scarred and yellowed copy of the script, with highlighting of many colors. In the battered script I came upon a doozy of a monologue with humor, pathos, and Neil Simon's deft hand clearly showing.

I'll enjoy getting back on a stage at this point. The same stage, by the way, that my friend Doug Motel (scroll down the blog for my post about him) will appear on as 11 different people on Friday and Saturday nights of this week. The little Rosendale Theatre will take its place in theatrical history. The place for an unforgettable one-man show May 17 and 18. And the comeback of me, however brief it may be on June 1. If I get a role in one of the Short Plays, it may be the start of something big.