Monday, October 12, 2015

The Songs of Cole Porter

In connection with the Humboldt State University production of Kiss Me, Kate (October 2015), I researched and wrote background stories that seem appropriate for the archives at this site.  There's even more at HSU Stage and HSU Music, indexed under Kiss, Me Kate on both sites.

An aside 10/18: By one of those flashes of serendipity that's become a familiar part of immersing myself in a particular subject, on the night after seeing the premiere of the HSU production of Kiss Me, Kate I happened to see a completely unrelated old movie, or so it seemed.  It was the 1982 Evil Under the Sun, based on an Agatha Christie novel. (It's one of the Peter Ustinov ones.)  But the composer credited with the score was none other than Cole Porter.  It took place at a seaside hotel, and when late in the film Hercule Poirot examines the guest book, the names of Cole Porter and "Fred and Adele" (Fred Astaire and his sister, who were dancing partners on Broadway for years) could be seen. The story is set in about 1938, and thanks to my research into Mr. Porter, I could appreciate that the particular Cole Porter music used--mostly "Night and Day"--first heard in one of those Fred and Adele Broadway shows--"You're the Top," "Anything Goes" and "Begin the Beguine"were all written in the 1930s, before 1938, and so were historically accurate.   

Songs from Kiss Me, Kate like “Another Op’nin', Another Show,” “From This Moment On,” “Too Darn Hot” and others have had lives of their own, but one notable feature of Cole Porter tunes is that they nearly all were introduced in Broadway shows or Hollywood movies, sung by Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Mary Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, among others.

 But his tunes (including “Don’t Fence Me In,” “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “True Love” as well as “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Let’s Do It,” “Anything Goes” and “You’re the Top”) were kept alive through recording and reinterpretations by several generations of singers.

These range from Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald through Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carly Simon and Celine Dion to U2, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello, K.D. Laing, Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow and Diana Krall. Lady Gaga has recorded several Porter songs, and calls him one of her favorite composers.

Fred Astaire, Porter, Eleanor Powell
on set of Broadway Melody of 1940
Another notable feature of Cole Porter’s songs was that he wrote both lyrics and music. Along with Irving Berlin (Porter’s lifelong friend and supporter, who got him his first Broadway assignments), Cole Porter is exceptional among songwriters of his era in this regard.

 So while his lyrics are legendary, his music is strong enough to be recorded on its own, by big bands and jazz instrumentalists including Artie Shaw (who plucked “Begin the Beguine” out of a forgotten show and made it famous), Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Charlie Parker.

 Though Porter wrote songs or parts of songs and kept them “in the drawer” for possible future use, he tended to write pretty much to order for specific shows. This was especially true for Kiss Me, Kate, since it was his first show to integrate the songs so completely with the story.

original 1948 Broadway cast of Kiss Me, Kate
He could write quickly, as the four day weekend when he wrote three of the songs in this show, including “Another Op’nin’, Another Show.

  But there was some trial and error involved.When the choreographer complained about one particular song, he dropped it and substituted “Too Darn Hot,” which the choreographer immediately loved because he could see it as a dance. Harold Lang, who played Bill/Lucentio in the original production, complained that his part wasn’t big enough and he didn’t even have a song. Porter wrote “Bianca” for him, pretty much on the spot, with cast members shouting out rhymes for "Bianca."

 Cole Porter wrote 23 to 25 songs for the show. Some were cut in rehearsals, but 17 remained. Kiss Me, Kate was so successful in its Philadelphia tryouts that no further songs were cut. In fact, a couple of choruses of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” that had been dropped were added back.

Porter & Shakespeare

 Two of the songs in Kiss Me, Kate include lyrics by Shakespeare as well as Cole Porter: "I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “I Am Ashamed Women Are So Simple.” And despite the show’s title—Kiss Me, Kate—sounding like a snappy modernization, Petruchio actually speaks those words several times in The Taming of the Shrew. 

 Even though Porter had his doubts that a musical built around a Shakespeare play would attract Broadway theatregoers (something that potential backers also doubted), he seems to have found a kindred spirit in one aspect of the Bard’s comic writing: his use of wordplay, especially double entendres with sexual innuendo.

 Cole Porter was a past master of this himself, and it’s evident in this show in “Too Darn Hot” and “Always True to You in My Fashion,” for example. But Porter made the connection explicit in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” when he playfully turned titles of Shakespeare’s plays into sexual banter.

Song Lore

 There are stories about many of the songs, and they may even be true. 

“Wunderbar”: When Kiss Me, Kate was in early stages of preparation, the leading candidate to play the lead role of Lilli/Kate was opera star Jarmila Novotna. She was a social friend of Porter’s and one evening she brought a pianist with her to his apartment, who specialized in playing Viennese waltzes. When he finished she kept crying “Wunderbar! Wunderbar!” (“Wonderful!") The song by that title in the show is also a waltz.

"I Hate Men”: Several cast members told Patricia Morison, who ended up playing Lilli/Kate (see Kiss Me, Kate Meets Cinderella) that this song would embarrass her. It wasn’t going over in rehearsals. She mentioned her own misgivings to Porter, who remembered an operetta he’d seen in which the singer had emphasized a line by pounding his fist on a table. He suggested that she slam the metal tankard she was carrying. The effect worked so well that it was further emphasized by having her bang the tankard down on a couple of metal trays to make more noise. The song became a show-stopper.

 “Always True to You in My Fashion:” Cole Porter had that phrase of the title in his head but he couldn’t remember the source. The show’s writers, Bella and Sam Spewack, told him it was from a poem by Ernest Dowson, a late 19th century English poet and contemporary of Oscar Wilde who also contributed the phrase, “the days of wine and roses.” Porter’s song doesn’t bear much resemblance to this poem except for that repeated line of the title.

“Brush Up Your Shakespeare": Bella and Sam Spewack, who had worked with Porter before, were writing the script (“the book”) of Kiss Me, Kate. But at some point in creating this story about a couple having conflicts that bleed into the conflicts of the couple they are playing on stage, Bella and Sam themselves split up when Sam ran off with a ballerina.

 They’d split before, and would get back together again this time as well, but for awhile, Bella didn’t want to have anything to do with Sam. Sam’s major contribution to the story was the gangster subplot, and Bella was determined that it remain a small subplot, without a song involved.

 Unfortunately, Cole Porter came up with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” for the two comic gangsters. When Bella recognized its quality—and guessed correctly that it would also be a show-stopper—she dropped her objections.

 “So In Love:” A song that Cole Porter said he’d intended for a movie musical, but was persuaded to use in Kiss Me, Kate. It was subsequently became a top 20 hit for Patti Page, Gordon McRae, Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby—all in the same year of 1949. More recently it’s been recorded by K.D. Laing.

Ann Miller in 1953 movie version
"From This Moment On":  It was common for songwriters to lift songs from other shows (especially those that didn’t do so well) but Kiss Me, Kate had a unique variation of this.

 The play itself had finished its run after two years, and a Hollywood film version was being prepared. At the same time, Porter had written songs for another Broadway show that had personnel problems, with the director being replaced. The new director threw out one of Porter’s songs, so it was never heard.

 But when the Kiss Me, Kate film producers asked Porter for another song, he gave them this rejected one. It was “From This Moment On,” now one of Porter’s all-time classics. This song was then included in the 1999 Broadway stage revival, and it’s been in Kiss Me, Kate ever since.

 “We Shall Never Be Younger:” This song was one of those cut from Kiss Me, Kate (because, according to Porter biographer William McBrien, “it reduced the audience to tears,” presumably at the wrong time.) It never made it into another show, nor was it published in Porter’s lifetime. But it, too, has had a life since, included in Porter songbooks and recorded by Bobby Short.

Cole Porter

“In a way no other songs of the period quite did,” wrote journalist Walter Clemons, “Porter’s created a world.”

 But the man who personified continental elegance and Manhattan sophistication grew up in a small Indiana town on the banks of the Wabash River. Its only distinguishing feature was as the winter home for a circus, and it was watching circus acts rehearse for the next season that young Cole got his first taste of show business.

 His maternal grandfather had made a fortune, starting with a dry goods business supplying miners during the California Gold Rush. His mother, Katie Cole, was born in Brandy City in Sierra County, now a ghost town.

His grandfather was determined that Cole would be a businessman, but his mother supported his artistic expressions. Cole went to Yale where he wrote over 100 songs and was the center of most musical and theatrical activity.

 His grandfather insisted he go on to law school, but after Porter’s disastrous first semester, the Dean of the Harvard law school himself suggested Cole pursue songwriting, and sent him over to the Harvard School of Music.

 He continued his musical studies in Paris, where he met and married another American, Linda Lee (a descendant of Robert E. Lee.) Though Cole Porter was actively gay and this marriage was in part a cover in an intolerant time, he and Linda remained devoted to each other until her death. He relied on her judgment for every song. Said Saint Subber, producer of Kiss Me, Kate, “Linda was the air that made his sails move.”

Linda Porter
They were in Paris in the 1920s, among notable American expatriates in the unique artistic ferment of this time and place. One summer the Porters rented a seaside chateau at Cap d’Antibes, an unheard of place to spend the hot months. They invited Porter’s Yale friend Gerald Murphy and his wife to join them for two weeks.

The Murphys loved the place, and returned for many summers afterwards, bringing with them such friends as Picasso, Stravinsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Eric Satie. The Murphys (celebrated in Calvin Tomkins’ book, Living Well Is The Best Revenge) essentially created the Riviera. But Cole Porter had discovered it.

 In 1923 Murphy and Porter collaborated on an American ballet to be performed as a curtain-raiser for La Creation du Monde, a ballet by French composer Darius Milhaud. Porter wrote the score, a “witty parody of the piano music played in silent-movie theaters” (according to Calvin Tomkins) while Murphy wrote the story and painted “a striking backdrop, which was a parody of the Hearst newspapers of the day.”

 Murphy also helped Porter’s musical education. He arranged with Jimmy Durante’s drummer to send him the latest American jazz records every month, and he knew and sang still obscure American folk songs and spirituals.

The Murphys and Porters in Venice 1923
 Throughout his life Porter loved to travel around the world. He absorbed the local music wherever he went, and made use of it in his songs. In this era, if you wanted the world’s music, you mostly had to go and find it.

 Porter’s ballet score and his songs for various theatrical events won the enthusiasm of the artistic community and wealthy sophisticates in Paris and New York, but they were not mainstream enough for Broadway in the 1920s.

 Then popular tastes caught up to him in a big way in the 30s. He got his first Broadway revues thanks to recommendations by Irving Berlin, and a string of hit shows followed, notably the enduring classic Anything Goes.

 He transitioned to Hollywood with the star of one of his Broadway shows, Fred Astaire. Porter alternated between Broadway and Hollywood, often doing one show and one movie a year. His movie work continued into the 1950s.

 A performer friend described him as “kind, gentle, very elegant.” A journalist called him “The Indiana lad with the Buddha gaze.” He lived in luxury in a huge apartment in Manhattan’s Waldorf Towers with his two cats, Anything and Goes.

 But in the mid 1940s he’d hit a dry spell. Though it had been nearly 10 years since a riding accident crushed his legs, he was still in near constant pain. He saw that musical theatre was changing, and he wondered if he could change with it.

 Then he was presented with an idea for a Broadway musical based on, of all things, a play by Shakespeare. Kiss Me, Kate became his biggest hit and as a complete show, his most enduring success.

By this time, Cole Porter was deeply involved in all aspects of his Broadway productions--he raised money, participated in casting, attended rehearsals and largely staged the show.  This makes the success of  Kiss Me, Kate even more the success of Cole Porter.

Kiss Me, Kate Meets Cinderella

Patricia Morison in Hollywood
What would a hit musical be without a Cinderella story? In this case it wasn’t in the plot but in the original production.

 Cole Porter often wrote songs with the vocal range of the actor/singer in mind. But he started writing for Kiss Me, Kate before all the roles were cast, especially the female lead, the characters of Lilli and Kate.

 In the early stages, opera star Jarmilla Novotna was the likely choice. But eventually she couldn't commit to the show. Cole Porter offered the role to another operatic singer and actor, Lily Pons, and considered yet another opera singer, Dorothy Kirsten. Pons couldn't do it, and Kirsten wasn't interested.

 So Porter found himself without a leading lady. The show’s director suggested an unknown: Patricia Morison, not an opera singer or a professional singer of any kind. She was a working movie actress in supporting roles, from B pictures (Queen of the Amazons) to a cut above that. She has the distinction of performing in the last film of three popular series: the Thin Man, the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes.

 Though she sang for soldiers on USO tours and at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II, she hadn’t sung a note in the movies. Cole Porter invited her to sing for him at his house in Hollywood. Her agent told her it wasn’t for any particular role, and she did it just for the contact and the experience. But according to Porter, as soon as she walked in he knew she was the one—if she could sing.

He accompanied her on piano, and discovered, yes, she could.

 After she’d taken lessons to strengthen her voice, worked on some of the show's songs and brushed up her Shakespeare, Porter was even more convinced. He believed that overnight she might become “a great new star.”

 But the producers were still considering other possibilities, and the writers had to be consulted. Unfortunately they were all in New York, and Patricia couldn’t afford the plane fare to go meet them. Then out of the blue she was invited to sing at a Bob Hope USO reunion concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The producers and writer Bella Sprewack were in the audience, and they all were enthusiastic. Patricia Morison got the role as Lilli Vanessi.

She was an immediate success. At the opening night party, after the rave reviews came in, she told everyone that she felt Cole Porter “has just lifted me out of my pumpkin coach.” It was a Cinderella story for real.

After 1,077 performances on Broadway, Patricia Morison starred in the London production for another 400 performances. In the backstory she created for Lilli, Morison used her own life--disillusioned with Hollywood, seeking redemption through a hit stage play.

 Morison had another success in the original production of The King and I, both on Broadway and on its national tour. She subsequently sang in many touring musicals, and performed her starring role in Kiss Me, Kate many times, including in a television movie in 1964, onstage in Seattle in 1965 and for the last time, in Birmingham, England in 1978—30 years after her Broadway opening.

Patricia Morison turned 100 earlier this year [2015], and is the last surviving member of the original cast of Kiss Me, Kate. She lives in southern California.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Anna Deavere Smith and Salmon

On Monday, the Yurok Tribe hosted a performance by Anna Deavere Smith in Klamath.  It was first of all, the best hosted event I can recall attending on the North Coast.   We strangers from Arcata were welcomed--and fed.  Very very well.  Before and after.

 Her presentation, "Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education/The California Chapter" about "the school-to-prison pipeline"was taken from her show at Berkeley Rep.  The larger project is funded by the Ford Foundation and others, and this local appearance seems to have been partially funded by the California Endowment.

Speaking of her research visits previously with the Yurok, "my time with the tribe was one of the most transformative experiences of my life," she declared on KHSU Homepage, and repeated at the performance.  Her quest to explore the American character for the past forty years, she said, lacked Native American voices. Her attempts to access those voices were rebuffed by those who understandably resisted others speaking for them.  But the Yurok tribe, the largest in California, welcomed her, and her presentation included several people she met there, including tribal court chief justice Abby Abinanti, and a fisherman she had interviewed just that morning.

She began with two focusing inspirations: her grandfather telling her that "if you say a word often enough, it becomes you," and the two-line poem "I, the song/I walk here."  That's a pretty good description of what she does.

Her method is to use the actual words of those she interviewed, though in reconstructed form as a kind of poetry, and to capture their personalities and voices in her performance.  At the end of her program in Klamath she spoke words of the great writer and activist of the 1960s James Baldwin, and from what I remember from his interviews and documentary appearances, she had him down cold.  So I expect her other portrayals were on the money as well.

Her artistry and methodology is exciting and inspiring, and together with the relationship with the audience, shows what theatre can do.  But the content of what these people were saying--about school, prison and everything in between--stays long afterwards. (She explains some of the issues and the intent of her project in this PBS interview.)

Shorn of abstractions and analysis, these voices clarify, and connect directly. They can however make more meaningful the studies which describe the effect of trauma on learning, and the recent finding that trauma can be passed to later generations genetically as well as culturally.

Although her main focus was the school-to-prison pipeline identified as such in a speech by President Obama  (with voices from Baltimore, Philadelphia and elsewhere as well as California) she began with a Yurok voice talking about the cultural, economic, political and personal meaning of fishing on the river, and recalling the Fish War of 1978.

This summer the Yurok tribe, the Hupa and other local tribes have been working to persuade federal authorities to increase the flow of Trinity River water into Humboldt County to prevent the kind of salmon die-off that happened on the lower Klamath in 2002.  As of this week, when a district court judge denied the attempt of central valley water districts to halt the increased flow, they have been successful.

The 2002 salmon die-off is at the center of a play created by an ad hoc group of Native and non-Native community members that HSU Theatre presented in 2006, called Salmon Is Everything.  As noted here, a book about the production and the issues it raised was published last fall, and it (also titled Salmon Is Everything) is HSU's 2015-16 Book of the Year.

On Sunday August 30 at 2 p.m., there will be a staged reading of excerpts from the play at the Van Duzer Theatre.  Theresa May, the book's author, will talk afterwards and lead a discussion.  It's free and open to the public.  There are more details at HSU Stage & Screen.

Update: The Van Duzer was nearly full for the 2 p.m. reading of Salmon is Everything on Sunday.  The audience included distinguished members of the Yurok tribe who had been involved in the Anna Deavere Smith project.  The reading was well-received and seemed to renew enthusiasm for the play to be mounted again.   During the discussion afterwards, someone said that the process of creating it and the play itself had been a milestone, and that recent progress in getting the Trinity water for the salmon this year would not have happened without this play in 2006!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Why Broadway Is Brit

Broadway is Brit.  British productions all but swept the Tonys, and more are to come.  British productions and actors are also present if not dominating off-off Broadway etc. in New York.

This article in the Guardian details these assertions and offers some reasons why British theatre is so strong, and American theatre comparatively weak, especially on Broadway.  The first answer is simple:

“It’s subsidy,” Levy says flatly. “It goes without saying that if you talk to theatremakers here, they wish there was government subsidy for the arts. It’s not impossible to develop excellent new work, but it’s much harder.”

UK not only has government subsidized theatre (although it is at least somewhat threatened by cutbacks there) but a long tradition of it, with institutions that have made creative use of it.  As the article notes, shows have the freedom to experiment and to spend more time on building a production from a small to larger scale.  Actors work all the time, and develop their skills.

Resulting productions, even when they go to commercial theatres, not only test the audience appeal but can be adapted to the Broadway stage with a fraction of the cost of mounting a new production there.

The last time the US had subsidized theatre was for a few years in the 1930s with the Federal Theatre Project.  Several shows it developed became commercial hits, and artists it developed fed New York theatre and Hollywood film for the next thirty years.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Spalding Gray: Stages of Life

Another post from elsewhere in my blogosphere that ought to be here as well, prompted by this recent New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks on Spalding Gray's brain injury, referenced in my review of Steven Soderbergh's film on Gray, as follows...

And Everything is Going Fine
 Directed by Steven Soderbergh 
 Criterion Collection

 I last talked with Spalding Gray at Wildberries Marketplace in Arcata,  on the afternoon of his last Center Arts performance here. I’d had dinner with him in Pittsburgh (along with six or eight others) several years before, where the general conversation was high-spirited—at least until he quietly observed that he couldn’t laugh anymore. He didn’t know why. He just couldn’t.

 But when I ran into him at Wildberries he smiled broadly and spoke with enthusiasm about the Humboldt landscape. It was January 2001, just months before he suffered major injuries in a car accident, including brain damage.

In this film about his life, Spalding Gray says that the years leading up to the 2001 accident were the happiest of his life. Three years later he was dead, presumably by suicide.

 Spalding Gray virtually invented the autobiographical monologue, although he preferred to call what he did “poetic journalism.” Several of his monologues became feature films, including Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme in 1987) and Gray’s Anatomy (directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1996.) Soderbergh and his team assembled pieces of video—monologues, interviews, reflections—into a kind of posthumous autobiography, with the help of Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow.

 There are gaps (notably in the years of his greatest celebrity) and the portrait that emerges may or may not be accurate (there’s emphasis on death and suicide throughout.) But the contours of his life and career are here, from childhood obsessions to the fatherhood that started those happy years. Between them were the yearnings and penchant for seeking extremes, and then the need to construct monologues about the resulting experiences.

 In the film he says that at a certain point he got tired of talking about himself, and sought ways to talk about other people. I witnessed him one sunny afternoon in PPG Plaza in Pittsburgh, soliciting stories from an assembled audience. He was a careful, caring, enthusiastic listener, and people responded. In a performance later that evening he told some of these stories with as much pith and power as he told his own.

 What seemed to brighten his life in the happy years he described was fatherhood. It happened as chaotically and neurotically as all the disasters he describes in his monologues. But this one turned out for the best. He enjoyed being a father, a family man, and apparently was good at it. His son wrote music for this film.

 This DVD includes an informative “making of” extra, in which Soderbergh owns up to his cowardice in avoiding Gray after his accident. It also includes Gray’s first monologue, “Sex and Death to Age 14.” Although chaotic, it had his signature emphasis on details as well as the humor and honesty (and the poetic inventions) that he would learn to structure in his later, more mesmerizing works.

 The film’s title comes from a monologue in which Gray talks about his father’s attempt to create the perfect suburban home, but even though “everything is going fine,” there was always one more thing to buy or do to create the completely protected life.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The O'Neill

I posted this review on another site some time ago.  As I wind down new posts on this site, I thought I'd bring it over here, where it belongs.

The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern Theater
 By Jeffrey Sweet
Yale University Press

 This coffee-table sized book is a solid history of an important institution in 20th century dramatic arts, even if it doesn't quite merit the grandiose subtitle (embarrassingly common these days, and I sympathize. The writer probably isn't responsible for it.)

 It's a 50th anniversary account of an institution--the Eugene O'Neill Center-- that began inventing itself in the late 1960s, in Waterford, Connecticut. The O'Neill began with the intention of nurturing new playwrights and new plays, which was not then the formal function of any other institution outside of a few university classes. This evolved into the National Playwrights Conference, held for a month every summer. Other programs were added over the years, and this book chronicles them.

 The proximity of New York and also of Yale Drama were crucial, as some of the best young actors in the country came up to be an intimate part of the process. (Two of the earliest, Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, provide prefaces.) The O'Neill is young enough that many present at the creation, including its founder George White, were available to be interviewed for this volume.

 Sweet reports the story, and includes theatre lore to satisfy that appetite as well. Under the leadership of Lloyd Richards, the playwrights conference evolved into both a model and a unique experience. Many new playwrights thrived there, including its most famous alum, August Wilson.

 I attended two weeks of the 1991 conference for a Smithsonian Magazine article and saw how well it worked, and felt the personal bonds that it made and that nourished its success. For actors who went there every year (like John Seitz, who I interviewed and who is mentioned in this volume as having his ashes scattered there) it was a holy place, and participating was (as Seitz said to me) like "renewing my vows."

 Since this was the first of the O'Neill programs and the most influential, Sweet begins with it. He punctuates this narrative with chapters on other programs (National Theatre for the Deaf, the critics institute, etc.) though following the death of August Wilson with the Cabaret and Performance Conference is more than a little jarring.

 When I was there in 1991, the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference specifically were already encountering financial problems, and a certain anxiety accompanied that summer's activities. There was a particularly strong feeling of appreciation for what it was, since it seemed it might not last.

 In fact the conference did undergo changes after Lloyd Richards left, many of them for reasons related to money. One year there wasn't enough to fund the open submission policy that was the heart if not the soul of the conference, but loud clamors of opposition to the change brought it back. Thanks to a fund set up by former O'Neill employee and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and initially financed largely by Meryl Streep, the resources necessary to continue that process are safe, this book says, for a long time to come.

 But it does seem that the power has shifted towards the commercial theatre, particularly musical theatre, even within the O'Neill. This reflects a long trend in American theatre as much as the growth of university playwriting programs. Dramatists are now more likely to find creative homes as well as financial support in television, as was even the case among the 1991 playwrights I met and followed.

 I hope this book inspires more books and different books (with additional photographs that exist) that delve into the history and the magic of the O'Neill, and such extraordinary figures as Lloyd Richards, George White and Edith Oliver. My two weeks there were among the most memorable of my life. Just the theatrical stories told by participants and visitors in the Blue Genes cafe would fill volumes. In the meantime this book is a very good start.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Great American Playwright

American Masters series recently broadcast a 90 minute documentary on playwright August Wilson and his unsurpassed 10-play cycle about African Americans in every decade of the 20th century. It can now be viewed on the program's website here.  There are some segments there also that didn't make the broadcast film.

The film a good introduction and summary for its length, occasionally powerful, especially when August is talking, though it maybe could have done with less of Christopher Rawson, the Pittsburgh critic.  There are lots of other stories out there, and much more to know about the plays.  There's more to be explored for future filmmakers and writers.

It does put August Wilson's accomplishments in some historical perspective, especially for younger generations. His ten play cycle is unique, providing good grounds for calling him the American Shakespeare.  He treated large themes with specific characters and situations, and he brought something to theatre that has been much lacking since: a voice.

 I just read part of a Dramatist magazine discussion of  "devised theatre."  Its confusion convinced me that "devised theatre" is just another new marketing category, like "creative nonfiction."  There's always been a place for experimental and highly collaborative work.  But devised theatre has become fashionable, possibly because it's easier, on every level.  It can make contributions, but it's not by any means the only way to make plays.

Above all what devised theatre often lacks is a voice.  That's what Lloyd Richards always said the O'Neill was looking for: not a polished play or commercial potential--but a voice.  August Wilson was the greatest example.

The O'Neill fostered a kind of collaboration, but the playwright decided.  Did that line an actor suggested belong in the play?  The playwright decided (and August decided yes at least once.)  Devised?  Take a look at all the scraps of paper he assembled, culled, made cohere.  The voices came to him, and he gave them theatrical voice.

Easily the best example of an excellent play that began in collaboration that I know of is Arthur Giron's Becoming Memories.  It began with his students telling stories.  But it ended with Giron writing--arranging, structuring, and giving the play a voice.  It's a wonderful theatrical experience.  I've seen at least three productions, all different, all luminous: one in Vancouver, BC; one at a university in Pittsburgh and the best one at a central Pennsylvania college with untrained student actors, directed by Margaret Kelso.

The film on August Wilson included a monologue from Gem of the Ocean, performed by Phylicia Rachad, who played this role of Aunt Ester in the Broadway production.  (I saw the Oregon Shakespeare production, which featured Greta Oglesby, who originated the role in pre-Broadway productions.) Rachad tells the story of how Aunt Ester came to be.  August heard his characters talking--sometimes he didn't know who they were when he wrote down what he heard.  Sometimes he did.  So he knew who Aunt Ester was--the ancestor of everyone in the last 9 plays--because other characters had talked about her. But she had never spoken.

This is true. I sat at a table after dinner at the O'Neill with a few others, listening to August tell stories for his next play, and one was about Aunt Ester--perhaps the first mention of her.

Then one day she spoke to him, Rachad said.  He scribbled down what she said on some napkins.  Then afraid he would lose them, he called his answering service and read the dialogue so it would be recorded.  Then afraid it hadn't all been recorded, he went to a pay phone and called his cell phone, and read it again as a recorded message.

August Wilson and I grew up at about the same time, some thirty miles apart.  But our lives were very different.  There were points in common--the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, for instance--and I think I did recognize things in him that seemed common to western PA kids of our generation.

So I don't know if this business of mistrusting chance and technology with something valuable is a Pittsburgh thing, or just a character trait we had in common.  Because when I sat down to interview him for the first time--at a picnic table on the O'Neill grounds--I turned on my tape recorder.  And then I turned on my other tape recorder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Traffic Circle Purpose Revealed

Two crop circle investigators from England arrived in Arcata this week, but they weren’t on the lookout for bent corn.

 "We've gone right off crop circles," Nigel confirmed. "We're onto something new."

 "Something big," Bruce whispered.

 "Very big," Nigel agreed.

 Bruce looked both ways before he talked. "Traffic circles," he breathed. "That's why we're here."

 Attracted by Arcata’s new circle, euphemistically dubbed the Bicycle Hub, the Brit duo revealed that they’ve had their eye on our local traffic circles for some time.

 “As you know, crop circles are navigational aids for alien space craft,” Nigel said. “That’s okay if you want to land in like Iowa and so on, but what about other places? Urban areas, for instance? Maybe starting with small towns where aliens could blend in. Arcata is perfect for that.”

 But do they really believe traffic circles are the work of aliens?

 "They don't make much sense otherwise, do they?" Nigel said. " They’re purposeless and confusing. I mean, what kind of intelligence would think up traffic circles?"

 "Not human," Bruce said. "Clearly."

 But these traffic circles don’t just appear, our reporter objected. They are designed, engineered, built. They have slogans and marketing campaigns.

 “But not very good ones,” Nigel pointed out.

 “The aliens behind all this just haven’t gotten it all down yet,” Bruce said. “But they’re learning.”

 So is this the prelude to a huge alien invasion?

 “I guess we’ll have to wait for the new X-Files series to know for sure,” Nigel said slowly. “But we think so.”

 “But I wouldn’t be too worried,” Bruce added reassuringly.

 Why is that?

 “Just remember what these aliens are creating as navigational aids,” Nigel noted. “Like this traffic circle. Confusing. Disorienting. Nearly impossible to navigate.”

 "If traffic circles are an indication of how they think," Bruce concluded, "it's entirely possible they'll never get here."

 "Think of it. Thousands of huge space ships circling around each other, nobody knowing who is supposed to stop for who, and where to get on or off the orbital path."

 "They'll be there forever." Nigel and Bruce smiled at each other. Nigel bent his gaze to the circle. “Then we can get rid of these things, once and for all.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Acting Lesson

Tom Stoppard is a very verbal playwright, especially his early work, so the plays read well.  But they are a challenge to act.  Here's Benedict Cumberbatch doing about three minutes in Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead.  He's renowned lately for his facility with lots of words (Sherlock being a major instance) but I think this three minutes demonstrates how to act all those words. He reveals their humor, but he also makes them the expression of the character's thoughts and feelings.  It's a very impressive three minutes, illuminating what makes Stoppard's words theatrical,  but especially it seems to me a clinic for actors, period.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Internet of Forever (and Everywhere)

Among visitors to this site in the past month or so were these:

Searchers from Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, UK; St. Leonard, Maryland and Cincinnati, Ohio found Neil Simon and several of his plays.

A post about past productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream enchanted folks in Mechanisburg, PA, Jakarta, Indonesia; Wolverhampton, UK; Dubai, Beaverton, Oregon; Lexington, Kentucky; and Qatar.

Othello on Film was viewed from London, Washington, DC; Naperville, Illinois; Suffolk in England; Waldorf, Maryland; Argentina, and Kirksville, Missouri.  Readers in Crowley, Texas and Berkeley, California leered at famous productions of King Lear.

The Tempest and the Time Lord, plus historic productions of The Tempest caught the attention of browsers in Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Brussels, Belgium; Calicut, India and Aiea, Hawaii. Someone in Anderson, South Carolina checked out Much Ado About Nothing.  Twice.

Aukland, New Zealand studied Greeks.

The perennially popular To Kill A Mockingbird got looks from Hong Kong, London, Toronto, Chatham, England; Jenks, Oklahoma and Sherwood, Arkansas, among others.

The surprisingly robust attention to "Chekhovania" (about the Christopher Durang play) came from Moscow, Chicago Heights, Hazlet, New Jersey; Dillon, Colorado; New York City, Tallahassee and Wakefield, Rhode Island.

Folks from Wallsend (Sting's birthplace) and Bromley (H.G. Wells' birthplace) in England dug The Pit Men Painters.  Bluffington, South Carolina embraced Our Town.

Athens and South Africa chose Look Back in Anger.  Georgia hearted Mark Twain.  Dakar, Senegal and Ankeny, Iowa looked Beyond the Fringe.

St. Ignatius, Montana bid Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.  Kent, Washington explored posts on the Federal Theatre Project.  Ligonier, PA and Conway, Arkansas met G.W. Shaw and My Fair Lady.  Shakuntala attracted someone in Sulpher, Louisiana.

Inquiring minds in Koln, Germany and Rosny-sous-bois, Ile-de-France wanted to know more about August Wilson.

St. John's of Antigua and Barbuda were curious about Requiem in Arcata. Amsterdam traveled to Korbel V. Portugal accessed Babes in Toyland.  

Readers in Finland, Japan and Buffalo, New York were among those who paid their respects to Leonard Nimoy here.  Syosset, New York viewed "Print is the new vinyl," among those who selected recent posts.

So some of posts specifically selected were as recent as a few days ago, and some were posts from as long ago as 2007 (at least of the dates I noticed.)

I've said it before, I'll say it once more: This is the Internet I believe in: access to a backlist forever, from anywhere, at any time. An Internet for individuals as well as the swarm of the moment.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lions in Winter

Here's a treat, though a long one.  Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart talk about important moments in their stage careers and their lives, as well as their feelings about their film/TV stardom.  It's a fascinating 90 minutes.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy started on the stage in Boston, and returned to the stage in the 1970s, appearing in Equus on Broadway.  His best-known role of course was Mr. Spock in Star Trek on television and in eight of the twelve feature films, as well as on several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.   His attention to creating that role, protecting its integrity, and developing it over four decades is unique in modern acting, with multiple lessons for actors in all media.  The character he created transcended entertainment to become a contemporary archetype, one of the few mythological figures of our age.

Leonard Nimoy was buried today in Los Angeles.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on, into the future.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

When They Were The Top

There's a review in a right-wing magazine of a new book on American musicals that makes a couple of interesting factual assertions.  I believe the first one: the last song from a musical to become "an enduring popular hit" was "Send in the Clowns," written in 1973.

I believe it because I remember when songs from musicals were a much more important part of popular culture, and were regularly among the hit songs of a given year.  This phenomenon even survived the early years of rock & roll, into the early 1960s.  "Send in the Clowns" might well have been the last of these, especially to be recorded by artists not associated with the musical itself.  Judy Collins for example famously recorded this Sondheim song.  And it became such a part of the culture that nearly 20 years later a Star Trek Next Generation episode could have a 24th century character quip, "send in the clones."

The second assertion however is this: "But big-budget musical comedy has been in increasingly steep decline since the 1970s, and 10 long years have gone by since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the last homegrown musical to be wholeheartedly embraced by audiences and critics alike, made it to Broadway."

The writer, Terry Teachout, does mention the trend to what he calls "commodity musicals" based on movies etc. as well as small-scale musicals.  Since many of these are proclaimed "hits" I had assumed they were comparatively successful in an historical sense.  So if that was the most recent big hit, I'm surprised.  On the other hand, if it is true, I'm surprised only that I have a lot of company in preferring some of the older musicals to most of the newer ones.  Then again, I enjoy musical comedy movies most of all--which Teachout suggests persuasively is an entirely different form.

In any case, the book under review sounds interesting: American Musicals is simply a two volume collection of the scripts of 16 musicals between 1927 and 1969--from the beginning through the golden age.

Moreover these are the scripts of shows as audiences saw them on opening night--which in many cases are not the same as the versions seen today on the North Coast and elsewhere.  These unabridged scripts contain, for example, racially charged dialogue by today's standards, but Teachout claims that they also contain writing that suggests why these shows worked so well on stage.

Scripts are sometimes changed to substitute contemporary references for obsolete ones, but also in dumbed down touring versions, for schools and non-urban audiences etc.  It's a reminder that shows hereabouts may not be lacking just the lavish Broadway staging of the originals.

Teachout mentions that the classic American musicals were almost always "sunny in tone" and had happy endings.  That certainly was one of the changes from Sondheim on, an apparent reaction against the artificiality of the musical comedy.  While the form may have been expanded, it may also have become something else.  Maybe there are no musical comedies anymore.  As for their relation to real life,  I think increasingly of what British TV writer Russell T Davies remarked, that only the arts can give us comedy.  If we want tragedy, we've got real life for that.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Classic Problem

Tom Stoppard, whose new play The Hard Problem is onstage at the National Theatre in London, made some waves by claiming in a public forum that he had to dumb down a scene because preview audiences weren't getting a literary allusion.

He noted as well that a reference in one of his earlier plays to Goneril was recognized with the appropriate laugh in its first production in 1974, but when the play was revived in 1990, about half the audience was clueless.

The allusion, by the way, is in Travesties, a play so intellectually energetic and hilarious that it is almost never done (and certainly never on the North Coast.)  Henry Carr, a minor British official in Zurich, is being offered a part in The Importance of Being Earnest by its producer, James Joyce.  He asks why Joyce could possibly believe he is qualified.  Carr's younger sister Gwendolen says she recommended him. "You were a wonderful Goneril at Eton."  It seems that knowing Goneril is one of the sisters in King Lear is less essential to the joke than simply knowing it is a woman's part, and that Eton is (or was) all male.  Though like many jokes the humor is in the sound of the specific words.

Coincidentally, the play's director Nicholas Hytner said something perhaps pertinent to this point in an exit interview as he left his position running the National Theatre.  While giving him full marks for staging new plays of social and political import, the interviewer (veteran Guardian critic Michael Billington) noted a decline in productions from the classical repertoire.  Hytner accepted this observation, and said "I think there's been a general retreat from the classic repertory" but added "I also believe things will change and that the classic rep will be rediscovered by a new generation of directors."

This may be true, though especially in the UK--in the US I'd guess that such revivals as the new New York production of Albee's A Delicate Balance owe their existence to actors with clout (usually from the movies) who want challenging roles in a time-tested play once in awhile.

 But this overall point that the classic rep is not being done extends beyond Britain, though perhaps for different reasons.  My guess is that universities are also doing fewer classic plays, even modern American classics, unless they happen to be musicals.  It seems true of HSU for instance.

So what? Here's what.  Classic plays aren't classic just because they're old.  They may challenge successive generations of actors and directors as well as audiences, but they are worth that exploration.  And they are embedded in our common culture, for more than (but also including) punch lines of new jokes.

Some of this is an unfortunate byproduct of a healthy change--plays from cultures not much represented on common stages before.  There are only so many production slots, at the National or anywhere.

But it seems some and possibly quite a lot of it is not only because theatre audiences have dumbed down, but so has theatre education, leaving young theatre artists unequipped for the hard problems of the classics.

And it's a situation that feeds on itself, as the Hytner and Stoppard observations taken together suggest.  With fewer productions, fewer theatre artists as well as audience members get to experience classic plays.  They may all then comfortably believe that splashy musicals, identity dramas and warmed-over sitcoms are all there is.  Until very soon they are right.

Meanwhile, Stoppard's The Hard Problem (which is about consciousness, not--as the playwright points out--erectile dysfunction) is meeting with mixed reviews, often pointing out that it's not as good as his earlier plays.  If you read the reviews online and follow the algorthimically generated links, you may soon run into a review that says exactly the same thing about The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard's now "classic" trilogy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Los Pajaros and More on This North Coast Weekend

Update: It's the final weekend (Feb. 12-14) for Los Pajaros.  With Mother Teresa as Harpo, Dick Nixon as Groucho, it's the Marx Brothers meet Firesign Theatre, with a Latino edge.  The cast of 11 seems even bigger at times, so it's fascinating to recall that before this HSU production, the only performances were by the three members of Culture Clash. 

HSU Theatre is opening its major production for this school year on Thursday (Feb. 5) and it's something different for the North Coast.  It's Los Pajaros, a contemporary musical satire adapted by the Chicano American performance troupe Culture Clash from the play The Birds by Aristophanes, directed by Del Arte's Michael Fields, and featuring a Tim Randles band playing salsa, blues, gospel and rock & roll.

What's different is the Latino voice and perspective, in the Culture Clash script and as carried out by a largely bilingual HSU student cast.  The production recognizes the growing Latino population in Humboldt County and within the HSU student body, while adopting and adapting a comedic approach that's as old as theatre in western civilization.  That's pretty exciting.

So even if local media is waiting a week to review this play, it's worth saying that it opens this weekend and runs for only one more: Thursdays through Saturdays, February 5-7 and 12-14 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday February 14 in the Van Duzer Theatre.

  There's a lot more information at HSU Stage & Screen.  I usually have my complete say there, as production publicist.  But once in awhile I need to add a little emphasis when it may not be getting through otherwise.  (If you read the Journal you won't even get that link to information.  In what looks very much like deliberate pettiness, they've excised every mention of a web page link to this weekend's HSU theatre and music productions.)

Not that this is going to be a regular thing here anymore, but here's a couple of other events this weekend:

Arcata Playhouse hosts The Uncomfortables Tour, a spoken word event featuring Billy Tuggle (aka Karma Threesixty, from Chicago) and Wil Gibson from Maine, plus special guests. It's happening Thursday (Feb. 5) at 7 p.m.  There's a free workshop earlier that afternoon at 4 p.m. 707-822-1575.

First years at the Dell'Arte School present their annual Commedia dell'Arte Show  Thursday, Friday and Saturday Feb. 5-7 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


It seems that Lost Coast Outpost, which suddenly began linking to this site after the first 8 years of its existence, suddenly stopped this month.  Unless it was a one post glitch.

Maybe they didn't think that pointing out a show business connection to President Obama's State of the Union was sufficiently local.  Not as local as say, Shakespeare.  Whatever.  I do wish they'd waited one more post, for Retro Retro, which says something I feel is important about this blog and the Internet in general that doesn't get said very often.

Of course if they link to this post, as Emily used to say--never mind!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Retro Retro

A little retrospective on my Stage Matters retrospective: I mentioned that the posts on theatre that make up the bulk of this site often get readers far from the North Coast, and long after the date of the post.  Here are some examples from just this past few weeks of January 2015:

A reader in the UK was interested in "I Hate Hamlet: Additional Notes," readers in France and Kingston, New Jersey in "A Midsummer Night's Dream: Other Versions."  Readers in South Korea and Manchester, England sought posts on "The Tempest," Edmonton, Canada on movies of "As You Like It" and somewhere in the US, somebody looked at "Equivocation: Notes and Spoilers." Readers in Midland, Texas, New Zealand and Brisbane, Australia were interested in various posts on Othello.

Australia and San Gabriel, CA accessed HLOC's "Thoroughly Modern Millie," somebody in Oregon dove into the "Titanic" musical.  Readers in Petersborough, UK; Jenks, Oklahoma; Memphis, Tenn.; Canoga Park and San Rafael, CA; Mechanisburg, PA and Atamonte Springs, FLA looked at posts on "To Kill A Mockingbird."  At certain times of the year (Term papers? High school productions?) this is a very popular subject.

Someone in Qatar looked at "Sweeney Todd," someone in the UK at "Brigadoon." Somebody in Marshfield, Wisconsin looked at "Spinning Into Butter," and an Internet machine in Beaver Falls, PA focused on "The Pitmen Painters."

Powell, Ohio and Winnipeg, Canada were into "Chekhovania."  New York City and Arlington, Virginia looked up posts on the Federal Theatre Project.  Aquitane, France related to Uncle Vanya.  Buenos Aires headed for "The Time Machine."

Some of the accessed posts were intriguingly local. France found "Jason in Eureka." India was into "Freaks & Greeks." Oakland, Tenn. and someone in Japan accessed "Requiem." Orlando, FLA read the Lauren Wilson interview. Storm Lake, Iowa checked out "Elisabeth's Book."

This is the Internet I believe in: access to a backlist forever, from anywhere, at any time.   An Internet for individuals as well as the swarm of the moment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pick Yourself Up

"My fellow Americans, we too are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America." --President Obama, his "defiant" State of the Union 2015 last night.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Print is the New Vinyl?

Before we move on beyond this accidental series on digital domination, one interesting and perhaps delightful (if true) countertrend. However, first let's restate the trend, with the eloquent opening to Leon Wieseltier's New York Times Book Review essay (with my emphases), in your Sunday Times today and online:

 "Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. 

Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous." 

 The death knell for non-digital reading and writing is often sounded, sometimes with lived alarm, sometimes with complacent (I've made my money and reputation thanks) acceptance. But leave it to my favorite newspaper columnist, Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle, to find (or maybe make up, just a little) a somewhat countervailing trend: "Print is the new vinyl."

 These words were uttered, he writes, by a tech savvy entrepreneur, suggesting a trend that combines retro with realization (that analogue records offer better sound than digital.) Together they fantasized a sweet (if likely brief, or if ever) future:

 "So perhaps the latest bunch of tech billionaires want quality too. They want long-form journalism, say, that can be reproduced in a portable and well-designed format. They want editing and fact-checking. Perhaps they want fiction, poetry, excerpts from the classics.

 Nothing like old media to add that sheen of prestige. The guy I was with suggested that writers might once again make actual money, that the sight of someone carrying a book would be like seeing someone toting around a dulcimer — it indicates that they have hidden depths. We’re talking about a covert desire to follow the dream of the Enlightenment." 

 A last ditch dream? Probably. But I do recall that on several visits to a fashionable cafe in Menlo Park not far from Stanford--close enough to ground zero for the tech world--I saw more people reading books, newspapers and magazines than were starring at laptops and tablets, or even conspicuously glued to their smartphones etc. A definite counter-trend to, for instance, the HSU campus.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Keyless Cars, Brainless Humans

Phones and other electronic devices may be smarter, but people seem to be heading the other way into a brainless stupor.

 It's not just the kids who literally cannot be separated from their phones without psychological and even physical trauma. There's an even more serious form of dependency, and it is becoming less and less avoidable, even for those who reject it.

 For instance the keyless car. An item in Consumer Reports recently affirmed that new cars in all price ranges are coming equipped with this technology. What is this electronic marvel? It allows you to start your car without sticking a physical key into a physical slot. You just push a button on your device, known as the key fob (even though there is no key attached to it.)

 What a miracle! You can start your car with your hands full of something else--your smartphone probably. Although you've had to push a button on the fob to get into the car, and then you still have to push another button in the car. But you don't need that damn inconvenient key.

 So let's start with the basic rule of electronic wonders in and on your car, which is that, for all their benefits, they are each something else that can go wrong. Usually more than one something else. And almost always nothing you can fix yourself.

 So there are things that can go wrong with your fob, such as the batteries, and if you don't have a backup system (electronic or key), you're screwed. You ain't moving. It may mean a tow, and it definitely means time and money.

 But that's minor compared to the much more likely possibility--you misplace or lose the fob. Then without a mechanical key system, you are really really screwed. And CR says replacing the fob could cost hundreds of dollars, and who knows how much time and trouble.

 Think about it. When somebody swiped my jacket with my car keys in the pocket, I got someone to drive me home, wait a minute while I got my duplicate key, then he drove me back to my car. Duplicate keys cost a few bucks, and you can make as many as you want and stow them in as many convenient places as you wish, so losing your car keys is not a catastrophe.  Many people attach a duplicate to the car itself.

 But for the dubious benefits of a "keyless" ignition, you still have to have that fob (although eventually there will be an ap on your phone device, which will make losing that even more catastrophic), and the cost of losing it is much much greater than losing that terrible old fashioned key.

 Behind this is the survival principle of redundancy, along with hedging your bets with alternatives (a gas stove that operates even when the electricity is off, etc.) Everybody loses stuff, so you cut down the consequences with redundancy (i.e. duplicate keys.) That is, while you can still buy a car that allows you to start it with a key.

 And that's the most brainless part of it. An entire society so dazzled with new toys that they never bother to think ahead to what could go wrong, and what the comparative consequences might be. It's great for the car companies etc. who sucker you into this, and then charge you hundreds of dollars for a fob, and thousands for extra electronic toys that may or may not improve the operation of your vehicle, but certainly make it harder and more expensive to repair. When something goes wrong. And something always does.

 But you might have paid tens of thousands of dollars for no alternative. How smart is that?

Monday, January 5, 2015

One Amazing Old Trick to Make Millions!

Shocking Top Ten Made Easy!
photo credit
Andrew Marantz in the New Yorker recently profiled young Emerson Spartz, crowning him King of Clickbait. The Spartz new-media company made millions in ad revenue last year, and attracted even more millions in venture capital. At 27, Spartz is widely admired, the article says, he's "inspiring," "awesome," "impressive." One of his investors is quoted as calling him "a Steve Jobs kind of guy...I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is heading."

If that's true it's heading in the direction of manipulation on the order of Orwellian cubed. And theft. Theft is very old news, and apparently very new media. For that seems to be how the Spartz sites make money. They steal the work of others.

 It's not just that Spartz is a self-righteous Philistine whose idea of how to make a great song is to get 40 people to record vocals, ask thousands of people to pick their favorite, then use the winner. "To me, that’s a trickle in an ocean of possible ways you could improve every song on the radio, he says. "Art is that which science has not yet explained.”

 Or even that his model for success is relentless cynicism, which is admittedly widely shared among those trying to get attention through the Internet. His websites are all about attracting traffic, and learning what content and packaging attracts the most traffic at a given moment.

 It's the same sort of technique that fills my inbox with email appeals for political donations that vary mostly by the subject line and the purported sender. (At least I hope President Obama isn't spending a lot of time drawing boxes for me to check beside the amount of my donation.) The idea is to throw a lot of subject lines out there, see which ones succeed the best, take the top five or so and use them, throw out the rest, and invent another five to test tomorrow. Or more likely, later today.

 Similar techniques are used to test and select photos and copy, including the kind that appear as ads on just about every web site, and contribute to making otherwise substantive sites look and feel like the back pages of tabloid papers and cheap magazines.

 But moron bait (and there's a moron lurking in all of us) is only part of it. There's the content, and where it comes from. One of Spartz Inc.'s sites, called Dose, publishes lists. (Lots of sites do that these days, because as Spartz proclaims, "Lists just hijack the brain's neural circuitry." This is your brain.  This is your brain on the Internet.)

 For example, “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” But all Spartz did was slightly repackage this information (as other similar sites had already done.) They didn't do the research, and didn't even link to the guys who did, let alone pay them a fee or a cut of their winnings.

 On Dose, the list got 200,000 page views, very good for advertisers, and very good for Dose. The New Yorker:

 'The Dose post, which received more Facebook shares than its precursors, briefly mentioned D’Aluisio and Menzel (though D’Aluisio’s name was misspelled). But their book, “What I Eat,” went unmentioned, and they certainly did not share in the advertising revenue. “This took us four years and almost a million dollars, all self-funded,” Menzel told me. “We are trying to make that money back by selling the book and licensing the images. But these viral sites—the gee-whiz types that are just trying to attract eyeballs—they don’t pay for licensing. They just grab stuff and hope they don’t get caught."' 

 But when you have no respect at all for content or for authorship, theft is probably not how you think about it. Spartz admits that content is of no interest to him: "We considered making Dose more mission-driven,” he said. “Then I thought, rather than facing that dilemma every day—what’s going to get views versus what’s going to create positive social impact?—it would be simpler to just focus on traffic.” 

 As someone who creates "content" (i.e. writes stuff) on the Internet, I'm waiting for the argument that convinces me that making millions from somebody else's work isn't theft. Sure seems like it to me. Maybe it doesn't occur to them that real people have worked to gather information, judge its value, see patterns, check it, find where it fits in larger contexts, craft it into a story etc. or even a damn list. Because most of their work is done by mindless algorithms.

 But not even that charitable excuse will wash. Spartz himself says why. On earlier sites they featured novel combinations of images, with text that reflected at least a few minutes of online research—but with Dose “we’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.” 

 Right--stealing is so quick and easy! Let other people do the creative and actual work. It's been the secret of success for generations of robber barons. How inspiring!

What's really amazing is that Spartz got started at the age of 12 by creating a Harry Potter fan site. He got to meet J.K. Rowling. Does he now think that the way to create a Harry Potter saga is to propose alternative plot points, and choose what happens by vote? Not that plot is the only factor in the saga's success--there's characters and their characteristics, descriptions, inventions, pacing, chapter order, chapter content, sentence rhythms, right down to the individual words. Not to mention the values, morality and emotion within it all. Got algorithms for that? And if you did, do you really think the whole Potter thing would have happened, including inspiring a 12 year old in Chicago to create a fan site?

 And how do you suppose Jo Rowling feels about somebody appropriating somebody else's creative work--say, Harry Potter? Maybe let her lawyers answer that for you, although she's been known to show up in court herself to defend her intellectual property.

 The New Yorker article mentions an internal study at the New York Times lamenting that their Internet site isn't creating these viral blizzards. What's scary about this memo is that journalism in its various forms and functions is talked about only in the argot that Spartz and his ilk own. When you define what you are doing by the premises and terminology of those whose mission sees yours as irrelevant, and they're out to destroy you or just suck you dry, you've pretty much lost already.

 The New Yorker article ends with Spartz' ultimate solution: “The lines between advertising and content are blurring,” he said. “Right now, if you go to any Web site, it will know where you live, your shopping history, and it will use that to give you the best ad. I can’t wait to start doing that with content. It could take a few months, a few years—but I am motivated to get started on it right now, because I know I’ll kill it.”

 I'm guessing that Marantz, with some old media skills, didn't end the piece with "kill it" by accident.

 Spartz begins his canned speeches by proclaiming that he wants to change the world. Apparently he is doing so. He's helping to make it worse.