Sunday, April 24, 2011

Inspector General Released

My playwriting mentor Dennis Reardon once wrote that adaptors are like the Rosie Ruizes of playwriting. Rosie Ruiz, you may recall, was that marathon runner who entered the 1980 Boston Marathon from a crowd of spectators half a mile from the finish line and then claimed to have run the whole thing, setting all kinds of world records.

My career as a playwright began in 1985, when I won a Young Fellowship at the Sundance Institute for my one-act The Color of Time. Ah, the sweet bird of youth, how soon it is flown, yadda yadda. My play was performed at the Salt Lake Acting Company, with which over the years I had a great relationship. I've written maybe twelve-one acts, ten shorter pieces, and seven full-length original plays. They have all been performed in Equity, semipro or academic theatres. I have also done three adaptations, and apart from some smaller pieces, the only things I've managed to get published are the adaptations.

My adaptation of Gogol's The Inspector General is out from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Here it is:

I don't take Dr. Reardon's words lightly - adaptors walk a fine moral line. After all, it's not as if I can claim to have devised this excellent piece of satire, nor walked the road of fire that Gogol did to get it premiered, a road which would eventually lead to a fatal mortification of self, and religious suicide. The most important aspect of comedy, however, as everyone knows, is timing, and comic pieces get stale quickly. I think something I have some limited talent for is recovering the funny and resetting comedy in a new context that transmits the same old message more effectively than the original can anymore. It's the difference, maybe, between being a painter and being a restorer of old masterpieces. What I want is for people to perform this play and have their audiences come away saying "That Gogol was a great writer, wasn't he?"

So, maybe, um, we're more like the, uh, guys in a marathon who pick up a fallen runner and help her across that new finish line that keeps moving further and further away.

I really want to thank Cynthia, Jerry, and Sarah; my awesome awesome hilarious editors at the press.

Please, read and enjoy.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gettin' old ain't for wimps

Fig. 1. Shmegegge.
Medical procedures are fascinating, aren't they? I often considered becoming what my Bubby Becky would have called "a doctor doctor," as opposed to what I am which is "a doctor of shmegegge" (Fig. 1.). But I have three barriers in my persona: I'm no good at science, I find the interiors of living bodies intensely repulsive, and I have big muscly clumsy fingers that have difficulty typing on an iPhone keypad. Not the kinds of fingers you want wrapped around your aorta, push comes to shove.

Fig. 2. Not good.
So anyway it turns out I have Obstructive Sleep Apnea. I'm writing about this because I'm feeling strongly like it's a big chapter in my life, and it occurs to me that other people could benefit from this knowledge. I wish I knew about this ten years ago, or even twenty, when I started suffering from it. If you think you might have some of these symptoms, I encourage you to find a doctor who will help you.

In everyone, the tissues in your throat relax when you sleep. In my case, when this happens the tissue shut off my airflow [Fig. 2]. Each time this happens, I get a panic response with a shot of adrenaline that jolts me out of sleep so that I can open my throat and breathe. Preferable to dying, yes. Problem - it's a vicious cycle that keeps me out of deep sleep. The results - apart from, well, insomnia, sleepiness, which sometimes causes me to fall asleep during the day even while I am in conversations with people, and general exhaustion, missing meetings and deadlines, forgetting things, there's also the really fun stuff; morbid consequences to the mind and body such as obesity, hypertension, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, anxiety, depression, dementia and unexplained sudden death. Also, there's this: [Fig.3]
Fig. 3. One reason to get a good night's sleep.
So after years of experimenting with sleeping pills, herbal medicines, appliances, strips, inserts, plugs, losing weight, exercising, and meditating, with no effect, last year I had a series of polysomnography studies which determined that, well, I figure I should spare you the details, but it's really bad. Bad enough that a pulmonary specialist who looked at the results kept asking me if I was really a tenured professor at Carnegie Mellon - it seems that most people my age who have this problem are 350-pound shut-ins, or dead, or both. So, hey, that's something. For the past 20 years I've been turning my insomnia into a longer productive day, I guess.

So the pulmonary specialist strapped me in every night to a machine that blasts air into my lungs, which is like sleeping with your head hanging out of a Mack truck doing 85 on the highway. Also I have an oxygen compressor, so I am a genuine cyborg now. My bedroom sounds like the factory floor at Boeing. This improved matters, but not enough. So after a year of that, finally I'm heading for surgery. Yay!

Fig. 5. Like you don't have crap in your neck.
Apparently, they are going to clear out all the extraneous shit that should have evolved out anyway, shrink my knockwurst-sized turbinates, and clear out all the crap in my neck [Fig. 5]. After that, apparently, I will commence to lose weight (metabolism realignment), get in terrific shape (work out in evenings instead of collapsing), diminish anxiety, win friends and influence people, and, you know, solve all of my physical and personal problems [See Figs. 6 and 7].

Fig. 6. Before
Fig. 7. After

Friday, April 22, 2011

TEDxCMU update

Fig. 1. Do you trust this man
with the future?
The intrepid, astonishing youngsters who staff TEDxCMU have honored me by asking me to become the event's faculty advisor. I guess they liked me! Maybe next year I will get a suit that actually fits [Fig. 1]. I am very excited to be part of this team in an ongoing way. Here is the video website, which they promise will be full of cool things [e.g.; Fig. 2] by next week:

The reason the jacket doesn't fit is because I lost about 20 pounds since I bought it. Just sayin'.
Fig. 2. Two cool performance artists.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Carnival! You-shoulda-been-there for bbq

Fig 1. Bad Moon Rising
Carnegie Mellon has a tradition of taking two days off in April to celebrate the rites of spring, which takes the form of a buggy race called "Sweepstakes." It's the one sport we really excel in, largely because it involves stuffing very small women into very small vehicles designed painstakingly by nerds. My student Catherine Rodriguez is a buggy driver this year. She's very small. Be safe, Cal.

Carnival also involves werewolf sightings (see Fig. 1)

Fig. 2. Not a werewolf.
David Holcomb (Fig. 2) and I may not be werewolves, but like them we track our prey by smell, and so discovered a huge campus-wide barbeque, free to anyone with a card. 

Good stuff. A good day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Broeverbs; the proverbial sayings of David Boevers

David Boevers, my respected colleague, is a fountainhead of wise sayings, which behind his back we call Broeverbs. Actually only I call them that. His most profound (which is acceptable for public discourse) is probably this one:

"Carnegie Mellon University is the place of 'oh-my-god-you-shoulda-been-there-last-night.'"

What this means is that this campus is absolutely chock-full of astonishing people doing astonishing things and nobody seems to know anything about it. Part of this is because everyone is very, very busy, part is because it just seems to be hard to get the word out. I'm going to contribute to this malaise by talking about the mondo coolio-bizarro stuff I experience here under that heading. Stay tuned.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jekyll and Hyde; also, Sunita Partita

My great adventure for today was participating as an outside reader in the dissertation defense of Meredith Conti, of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theatre Arts.

I am happy to say the defense was a great success. Meredith's... excuse me, Dr. Conti's serious, meaty dissertation deals with the representation of illness on the 19th century stage, so in many ways it's right up my academic alley. But this dissertation was like a full six-course meal - even the side materials were hearty fare. Soup to nuts. She devotes her primary attention to, of course, la Dame aux Camelias, but goes on to deal with addiction in a couple of very tight, flavorful reads of the first productions of Shelock Holmes and, of special interest to me, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. I perked up my ears on this one, because my student Zander Miller is working closely with various dramatic interpretations of that text right now, from I flatter myself his initial work with me in my class on Monster Theory. Good stuff! Meredith Conti is a name to watch; I've never been in a defense that went so amicably and smoothly, because she had really done a great job. And I'm not just saying that because of this.

After the defense Bruce McConachie, Head of the Pitt department, and I walked over to the Union Grill to meet with performance studies-types from both our institutions to plan the latest incarnation of the intramural mini-conference we have traditionally held. I understand the tradition has been on hiatus for a year, but next year we will revive it. I was very happy to meet Neil Doshi who will collaborate with us - Neil is a fascinating guy with specializations in Cultural Studies, Francophone Studies, Performance, and Comp Lit. Also involved will be the usual suspects in performance studies from our campus; Kathy Newman, Kristina Straub, Peggy Knapp, and the inimitable Wendy Arons. This will be very exciting for our English grads and Dramaturgy undergrads.
Fig 1. The face of an international treasure.

Afterwards, I traipsed on back to Purnell where I ran into Bulgarian national treasure Mladen Kiselov (pictured). I am always happy to see Mladen because there's no telling where on the planet he might be at any given moment. At the present time he is HQ'ed in Estonia where he is adapting Brecht. He asked me for a recommendation for a play about addiction. Instantly I said "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde," about which he gave every indication of knowing absolutely nothing. How terrific it would be to introduce Eastern Europe to Robert Louis Stevenson! At that moment, the earth opened up and Zander Miller rose to join us at the table. Clearly, the gods have something in mind here.

The other great adventure I had was yesterday when the "Young Parents of the SoD" (which is to say, parents of young children at the SoD) threw a bit of an after-nap social in honor of the second birthday of Sunita Weems, pictured here in the Tribune Review. In attendance were Chance Handel, and his Handelers (see what I did there); the Arons-Perdriel Ladies; the Holcomb Three (minus two);  Buzz Miller and the buzzlet, Tatum; and the Hines Clan; along with Zain and Farhana. Also, student support network Lauren Parks, Josh Gelb, and Katie Brook, and Kim, one of Marianne's professional friends from The Builder's Association.

Fig. 2. The face of an international treasure.
I understand Kim went with Marianne to Nepal to collect Sunita (see pic left). Talk about it taking a village. It's a joy to me to have a house full of children and friends and colleagues and students, eating cake.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hath Not A Robot Video Cameras? you-shoulda-been-there-last-night episode #4

THIS is Data at the TEDxCMU Conference, from April 4. I've been enjoying working with him and his handler, Heather Knight, who is working on her doctorate in the Robotics Department. Working with her, her advisor Dr. Reid Simmons, Anne Mundell, and Dennis Schebetta has introduced me to the growing field of Social Robotics, or as Dana Shaw calls is, Roboturgy. The aesthetics of robotics are extremely important - from my point of view, all forms of interaction between humans is aesthetic; I'm getting this from my understanding of Erving Goffman (and his "Dramaturgical Theory of Self," no, really, look it up) and Herbet Blumer's theory of Symbolic Interactionism. These social psychologists confirm what dramatic theorists since Aristotle have asserted; that performance is critical to human communication and learning, which occurs through an imitative process Aristotle called mimesis. In light of some theories that the Lascaux cave paintings may include depictions not of animal hunts, but of hunting dances, this idea seems to have a lot of credence.

 <-- Heather Knight

Industrial Robot -->

Humans develop emotional connections to things that are alive, because of the ways they behave and what they communicate. They develop emotional connections to things that are not alive (such as dolls and toys) because of the ways those things reflect and imitate life. I'm arguing that we don't develop emotional connections to industrial machines because they do not engage us mimetically. See? Look at it. Feeling any mimesis going on? If you are, then you have a power tool fetish and you probably should see someone.

Social Robotics, in brief, is the study of how robots can learn to gather, process, and generate emotional information, so that humans can form emotional connections to them and so that robots can respond well to human needs. This is where we, as scholars of performance and human interactivity, come in. I have had some fascinating discussions with Reid and Heather about the nature of this project. In my view, it's all about performance; robots and humans do not actually need to feel emotions in order to engage emotionally. We all just have to appear to be engaging. That's what an actor does, and it works just fine, but that's also what humans do - as Mark Twain famously wrote, the moment that a baby human realizes that it will be picked up and cuddled if it cries whether it is feeling distressed or not it becomes devoted to a lifetime of lies. Consider this exchange, which I hear every day:

A: How are you?
B: Fine.

Perhaps that is needlessly cynical, but I have a lot of thoughts on this topic that I am cauldroning around in my head right now. Bubble, bubble. Heather's work is about performance robotics: you have got to see her design work on this OK-GO Video. So for the TEDxCMU conference, as what I have come to think of as a "third-act curtain raiser," Heather and I and Data did a little informational standup, and the crowd got a workout as well. Data did a monologue I wrote for him called "Hath Not A Robot Video Cameras" and I thought he was really excellent.

Much, much, much more to come, I hope.

Dr. William Galt

Guest teaching for Kristina Straub

ALICE PROJECT Tech rehearsal 4/8

Susan Jonas, Macrodramaturg, Visits Ghostlight

Susan Jonas was a guest of the Dramaturgy Program this week. I have to say this is kind of a career high for me, because of the tremendous influence that her work has had on mine over the years, particularly since we started building the program. More specifically, she has me thinking about new ways to approach the discipline. Jonas is, to use her phrase and hopefully propagate it, a "macroturg."At dinner on Wednesday night, she presented me with a metaphor. It begins with an image of black and white stripes, and then the eye pulls back to reveal a zebra, then back to reveal a pack of zebras, then a waterhole with its community of animals, then a Serengeti savannahscape. So if we define the picture of stripes as "microdramaturgy," the work an individual dramaturg does on an individual play (WTPN, research support, articulation of vision, written materials, outreach, navigation), then as we pull back we see how that work fits into a larger cultural conversation, including other discourses of art, society, politics, technology, and so on. Macrodramaturgy is the recognition that as dramaturgs we are custodians of that larger conversation as much as we are of the many little ones.

This is an articulation of a prospect that I identify in my book as being pretty important, but I think the book is a little vague about how it looks in reality. It goes back to what Lessing and his forebears argued, that theatre is a way of combating human barbarism. Susan is someone who has spent many years sitting on arts councils and grant-funding organizations, which is where some big decisions are made about how those discourses are shaped. She has made a real impact at this level - one very public manifestation of this was her Report on the Status of Women in the Theater.

Having Susan in our midst has been inspirational, I think, for those students (grad and undergrad) who want to know more about the nuts-and-bolts of professional theatre production than I can tell them (my specialities are in the nuts-and-bolts of academics), but perhaps even more so for me. A career high, which leaves me a lot to think about.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

TEDxCMU - Michaelene Risley (you-shoulda-been-there-last-night episode #2)

On Sunday, April 4, I was the Master of Ceremonies at TEDxCMU, an independent student-run initiative operating under the TED conference umbrella. This is the second year we have done this. For me it was very exciting and a lot of fun. I have to give serious props to James Pan and his team, and to Drama student Brian Rangell for their excellent organizational work. One of the speakers said "oh, I was so glad to see there was a grown-up behind all this," and I said "don't misunderstand. I'm not in charge of anything. I work for the kids."

I want to make several posts about this event. But this one is about Michaelene Risley. I sat next to her at the dinner beforehand and almost instantly I realized I was in the presence of an extraordinary person. Michaelene was living a pretty recognizable US middle-class lifestyle, an entrepreneur and soccer mom, who suddenly decided to drop everything and follow her dream - to become a documentary filmmaker in some of the most dangerous conflict areas in the world. She was investigating the sexual abuse of very young women in Zimbabwe, where there is apparently a cultural myth that indicates that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV/AIDS. Michaelene discovered and documented the horrible truths about this state of affairs, which include women and girls being raped by fathers, brothers, cousins... and the youngest reported victims being less than two days old. Because of her work, she was detained by the Zimbabwe authorities and thrown into a Police Torture Center, along with her assistant (first job out of college!). She was not tortured, but she continued her work inside the prison, and escaped from Zimbabwe with a horrifying story to tell. Her presentation at TEDxCMU was powerful and deeply moving. Here we are together in McConomy Hall.

Read more about Michaelene and her film, Tapestries of Hope.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

CMU, The place of you-shoulda-been-there-last-night episode 1: "Fire in My Belly"

Wednesday April 6 2011 4:30: Attending a CAS panel event regarding the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian's decision to withdraw "Fire in My Belly," a 1987 film piece by the artist David Wojnarowicz, after a complaint by Catholic League president William Donohue, from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery called "Hide/Seek."

Presenting about this controversy and the nature of censorship in society are: Richard Howells of King's College, London; Andrea Ritvoi, a cultural studies professor here at CMU; David Dumbrosky, the Executive Director of the Center for Arts Management and Technology; and Jonathan D. Katz, founder of the Harvey Milk Institute and the first professor of LGBT studies ever to recieve tenure in the United States.

Richard Howells [pictured here on British television] is a dear friend, who was the Senior Fellow of the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon in AY 2003-4, the same year that I was the Junior Fellow. He is a scholar of utopian thought, and author of The Myth of the Titanic which is one of my favorite books of scholarship. We became friends and then collaborators, and co-authored an article:  “Midget Cities: Utopia, Utopianism, and the Vor-schein of the ‘Freak’ Show,” which appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, 25:3 (Summer 2005). I have presented the results of this research at the Coney Island Museum as part of the "Ask the Experts" Summer Lecture series in 2008 and at the Little People of America Association National Conference in Brooklyn in 2009.

The panelists are looking at the nature and process of censorship. They're going way beyond the convenient finger-wagging at the Smithsonian which is the happy passive response of us educated liberals to active censorship, "oh, shame on you, Smithsonian, you weak-kneed capitulators."

Howells looks into the convenient performance of outrage that accompany both the presentation of "offensive" material and the attempt to censory it. Ritvoi gives some perspective about what lies and misconceptions were promoted as part of this campaign against "Fire," and what it is like to grow up in Soviet Romania where overt censorship is a daily occurrence. Dumbrosky asks pragmatic questions - he notes that the real question is what are you willing to go to bat for, as a manager, as an artist, as a producer: are you willing to back your teammates, or not? Katz, who is someone I admire very much for his ability to transform his prodigious accomplishments as an art historian into prodigious achievements for Queer activism, notes that censorship happens all the time in the art and museum world as they simply turn down controversial exhibitions, particularly in the US in the past 30 years, those with Queer content. These observations dovetail interestingly in the recognition that censorship is so institutionalized in American culture that it has become, like so many other atrocious states of mind, utterly normal, and we only think to condemn it when it is so blatantly obvious that certain decisions are being made that have nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics.

I note that Donahue is a primary fundraiser for John Boehner.

In the audience here at Adamson Wing I recognize Dan Martin, Stephen Brockmann, John Carson, Jon Klancher, Tim Haggerty, Paul Eiss: the usual suspects for a CAS event. I don't recognize any of the students.

Brockmann notes that there is a stereotype that the arts world is gay-friendly, and Katz disabuses him. But it occurs to me that the theatre is one place that is actually gay-friendly, both in terms of internal culture and artistic product. But Terence McNally's Corpus Christi is as likely to be disavowed by the Manhattan Theatre Club (1998) due to a complaint by the Catholic League as My Name is Rachel Corrie is to be disavowed by the New York Theatre Workshop (2006) after a complaint from area Jewish groups.

A few years back, CMU president Jarad Cohen stood up in front of the Anti-Defamation League and defended the right of Carnegie Mellon to invite any speakers it damn well pleased, and if the Jewish members of the community and the Jewish patrons of the university thought that some of those folks were anti-semitic, well, we'll just have to take the consequences. The faculty senate, of which I was a part at the time, stood behind him to clarify the Controversial Speakers Policy - they rejected the characterizations "Controversial," because that presupposes a conclusion before all the facts are in; "Speakers" because the policy should apply to performance artists, parades, installations, or whatever; and "Policy," because since the university was refusing to censor anyone, there was really no policy. So, now we have a noncontroversial nonspeakers nonpolicy. As a Jewish faculty member, I was surprised and genuinely pleased by this long sequence of events.

But then, what do we really risk? We all play our parts in this. I confess that I was approached by a theatre company that wanted to do a show with our depagot a lot of production money from a foundation that has recently been implicated in gay-bashing and creationist politics. I didn't want to support the piece for that reason, not because of the quality of the art. Can we divorce art from politics? Should we? If we are in the business of giving people a voice - do we give it to everyone willy-nilly? Even if it means losing our funding? Our audience?

Afterwards, Jon Klancher (who is awesome) clarified things for me - we have a right, as artists and political beings, to choose what we will or will not support, and we should never have to apologize for that. But if we back someone, we have to back them all the way, and not retreat as soon as someone with a microphone makes some noise. We may not agree on what we dare to support, or what we are prepared to fight for. Resistance is not futile. On the contrary, it is absolutely critical to our lives as artists and citizens.