Sunday, July 26, 2020

Book Review: Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die

Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die

 Way back in the sixties, John Steinbeck wrote a best seller titled Travels With Charlie. As I recall he piled into his truck with his dog Charlie and set out on a cross country odyssey that was memorialized  in a penetrating and heartwarming take on the human temperature of America.  Amber  Massie-Blomfield’s Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die is a similar offering in that she travels to a selection of fascinating theatres throughout Great Britain and uses them as the grist for her comments on their physical properties, their audiences, their communities, their employees, their directors, and ultimately to the nature of theatre itself.  She does not purport to make a “best of” list or rank the theatres she has chosen; she simply tells their stories. Let me also note that this is not a footnote laden academic study.  It is short, conversational, often quirky, and will make a delightful read for anyone with even a bit of theatrical blood in their veins. 

Her twenty choices are all intriguing in some way. They are not the common names and I have only been in three of her choices although I have been in a lot of British theatres in my lifetime.  The range of her choices goes from Cornwall’s cliff side Minack Theatre, which was literally hewn out of stone by its founder to the miniscule Tom Thumb Theatre in Margate, Kent.  She even pays homage to the archaeological remains of the Roman Theatre at St. Albans, which is one of the three I have visited.

Where do we start?  Every reader will want to underline a few notes from her  text and what follows are a few of mine. If they don’t appeal,  don’t worry, because I guarantee there will be another tidbit that will attract your fancy.

One of the first theatres she describes is the Theatre Royal in Bath (that’s the second of my three).  Ms Massie-Blomfield uses this historic venue to call up Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. She quotes Brook’s famous lines, “I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage.  A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.“  Then she goes beyond Brook to declare that even a space with no one walking across it is not empty.  It is a place of “memory, and history, and politics” along with all of the resonances that went before. A performance can never be separated from its location whether it be a grandly decorated auditorium or a dank basement.  I think immediately about my theatre,  the old Monmouth College Little Theatre,  a space where the insubstantial pageants have long faded and the fabric long dissolved.  Yet it still lives in the memories of its directors, its actors, and its audiences.  That is how this book works. You may not know any of the theatres she visits, but her descriptions make you think about other theatres you may have visited or worked in.  The author has a love for the theatre and it shows in every page. If there is a common thread that runs through all the chapters, it is that the people who run or have run these spaces all have had a passion for their art and the uncommon energy to pursue their visions at all costs.

From the chapter on the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, I underlined the idea that when a theatre works well it reflects its city or its community back at it. By sharing with all a theatre makes its home town a better place.  This is good advice for any artistic director.

From the chapter on the Holbeck Underground Ballroom located in a red light district in Leeds, there was for me a spinoff of my old colleague Bill Wallace’s “before the curtain speech” to his casts.  The Leeds director phrased his theatrical admonition as  “Have fun. Learn how to collaborate, show up on time. Believe in something.”    This was followed up by a discourse on the idea that “Principles only have value when they become difficult to stick to.”  Reading  this in the week that our country was laying the civil rights giant John Lewis to rest just added to my appreciation of the sentiment.   

I could go on, but there is no need.  This love letter to the spaces wherein theatres can exist and to the people who work in them and attend them makes its own points. Top that off with a style that is personal, entertaining, and ultimately upbeat and you have a fine read.  I’ll not close with a sleep but with the motto for the Battersea Fine Arts Centre.  It works for every theatre on every level.

“Non Mihi, Non Tibi, Sed Nobis”

    Not for me, not for you, but for us.”


Monday, July 20, 2020

An American Quilt by Rachel May 2018 Book Review

An American Quilt by Rachel May 2018

Have you had difficulty in processing the words “systemic racism”?  Did your schooling  teach that slavery was basically something  practiced by Southerners?  If so, you may need to read Rachel May’s An American Quilt.

It is not an easy or quick read, but it is packed with content that may help you adjust your thinking about racial issues in our country.  It took May years to pursue her investigations and after that there was still the work of developing a strategy for communicating both the history and the partly imagined stories of enslavement.
The emotional thread of the book is carried by the author’s discovery of a group  of unfinished quilt tops, their paper patterns, and a cache of saved letters. That the quilt tops were never sewn together makes the unfinished quilt a powerful  metaphor for our country’s racial history. We are all still in the process of working toward “a more perfect union.”

The family she highlights had both Southern and Northern roots. The key marriage involves a woman(Susan Williams) from the North and a man from the South (Hasell Crouch).  Susan’s new husband holds inherited enslaved people as domestic staff and as she tries to rise in Charleston SC society, she shows an easy adaptation to this situation.  The enslaved people (Minerva, Eliza, Jane, and Juba), whose history is little more than their first names, become the threads that Ms. Day has to basically re-create.  Given the paucity of records for people of color, she must depend on casual comments in the old letters of white masters, a few bills of sale that document the transfer of the enslaved to other owners, and the generally available historical record.  

You will note in the preceding paragraph that I use the term “enslaved people” to refer to what many of us were taught to call “slaves.” Ms. Law argues that we must revise our language in order to begin revising our imprinted white supremacy.  Using the term “enslaved peoples” imparts to these departed souls some of the recognition they were denied during their lives.  They were real people.  The difference was that the whites thought that black and brown people were essentially sub-human. Thus it was easy to treat them as objects that could be bought, sold, abused, or bequeathed.  This is a real life example of what is known in communication theory as the Sapir-Whorf  Hypothesis, which claims that the way a speaker structures language and uses or speaks words affects that speaker’s own understanding of the world.  i.e.your perceptions are partly controlled by the spoken language you use.  Add to this the brutal treatment of  enslaved  peoples and the all too common sexual abuse of  females by their masters and you have a crazy quilt indeed. 

One of many historical tidbits that I was unaware of was that women of color were identified by their main farming occupation and often called  “hoes. “ That is, according to the author, the derivation of the word “whore.”

While developing her story of the personal lives of enslaved people and their masters, May also weaves another thematic thread. She effectively rebuts the long lasting white perception that slavery, racism, and trafficking were mainly confined to the South.  She documents the interconnections that the families and the owners of the Northern fabric mills, the Northern distilleries, the Southern plantations, and the ships that trafficked slaves and goods were participating in.  She demonstrates that a large proportion of our young country’s growing economic wealth was dependant on the labor of enslaved people. The trade in human lives produced “an endless cycle that bound North and South” and made the North just as culpable for slavery as the South.  As May finally said  “No one was clean of slavery.”

My admittedly minor caveats to all this is that the book is 400 pages of small print with a lot of less than well printed illustrations. There was a little too much detail on sewing, fabric, and quilt making for me, but for someone with an abiding interest in those items that would not be a negative.  I also found it a challenge to process the constant time jumps back and forth. The shifts too often included repetitions of material that had already been treated.  Thus I do think the enterprise could have profited from a firmer editorial hand.  

In spite of these concerns, I learned some new things and was reminded of some things that I had forgotten.  I am definitely the better for reading this book and will never again use the term “slave” when I can say “enslaved people”.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Review Hell and Other Destinations

Hell and Other Destinations by Madeleine Albright is occasionally a heavy lift, but it is more often funny, acerbic, and thought provoking,  Her humor is wry and sneaky.  When she was told by another woman how brave she was for not getting a facelift, she admitted that she was tempted to respond to the courage the woman had shown in dealing with the results of hers.

And that’s how it goes. In the chapter on her family and friends we find that they all were educated and did well,  particularly in helping professions like the law and international children's assistance.  Education was her passport to a full life and she has passed her support for it on to her children and to the minions of countries around the world. Her father was a well known college professor and fled from Prague with his family just prior to WWII. One saying of his she remembers was “There is nothing better than to be a professor in a free country.”   She says that her father felt that the professorial life, because of all the time spent in preparation, was a solitary profession at heart.  Yet the rewards came from constant exposure to young minds, interchange with “mostly amiable” colleagues,  and a campus environment that was exciting and frustrating in somewhat equal measure.  Having spent my own life as a student and teacher on many campuses, I could not agree more. Albright continued to teach throughout her government career and another thing I agree with her about is that due dates are important.  In real life, she says, a decision memo or paper that arrives too late  “is as useless as a screen window on a submarine.”  Or as I have often said to generations of students, "Showing up is half the battle."

Midway in the book I was starting to bog down a bit, but when she began to relate the  discovery of  her Jewish heritage,  my interest returned.   

She was only five when her father escaped from Czechoslovakia with his family just ahead of the Nazi crackdown on the Jews.  She discovered much later in her life that  her grandparents and other members of her family did not. Instead many of them were shipped off to Terezin from Prague.

Five years ago my wife and  I visited Terezin and it was one of the most moving experiences of our lives. Terezine was not an extermination camp but essentially a prison where many died and many thousands more were sent on to Auschwitz. The rows of graves and cells are more than enough to bring the most jaded to tears. 

One of Albright’s relatives who did not survive was a young girl who actually did some of the extraordinary heart wrenching drawings we saw in the town’s Holocaust Museum and were later memorialized in the beautiful book titled I Never Saw Another Butterly.  You can still get a copy.

Albright knew the great Holocaust communicator Elie Wiesel and cited his famous admonition “Not to transmit an experience is to betray it.” in her book.

With interest rejuvenated,  I tackled the chapters dealing with her relationship with Vaclav Havel, the renowned playwright and later president of the new Czech Republic.  Her personal recollections covered  both his life as an artist and political figure.  It drew me back into my own connection with Havel.  The last play I directed in the Little Theatre at Monmouth College some twenty years ago was his compelling  work The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.  

Albright's final chapters tend toward philosophical reflection on governance and statesmanship. She said that she often answers questions by first saying the issue is complicated.  That, she continues, is because most important issues are complicated and if they were simple they would already have been solved.   

She muses on how even the passage of small amounts of time weakens memory.  The young, she said,  can’t conceive of a system worse than the one they are experiencing.  “Lacking patience, they underestimate the difficulty of governing, and are quick to find fault when their needs are not swiftly gratified.”  The gap between desire and reality produces a situation that no government  can fix on a dime and thus we are hammered simultaneously by the sometimes violent pressure to produce change quickly while also yearning for a world that feels stable and familiar.  This thought certainly resonates now.  

If you do need a dose of optimism, you can find it as she closes. She still feels there are enough people. both young and old, who believe that we cannot stay much longer on the present course without doing lasting harm to our country. The final thought comes from Joseph Lowery’s rainbow benediction at Barack Obama’s inauguration in January of 2009.  

 ”Help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when the white will embrace what is right."