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Nineteenth and twentieth Century opera houses are finding new lives today. Opera houses were once the center of art, culture, and entertainment for rural American towns--when there was much less competition for our collective attention.
Out last fall from LEE & LOW BOOKS, Ira’s Shakespeare Dreamis a picture book biography that tells the story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who defied convention and prejudice to become one of the most celebrated Shakespearean performers of his century. While much has changed since Ira’s time, the conversation around diversity at the Oscars reminds us that actors of color still struggle to find ample opportunities to practice their art.
We interviewed author Glenda Armand about why she chose to write a book on Ira Aldridge and how far we’ve come when it comes to diversity in the arts.
What drew you to Ira’s story? What about his story made you want to write it for children?
I came across Ira Aldridge when I was researching my first book, Love Twelve Miles Long. I was fascinated by his story and amazed that he was so little known. His life reminds me of the variety of experiences that people of African descent have had on this continent–before, during, and after the founding of the United States. There are so many stories to be told! Specifically, this is what drew me to Ira Aldridge:
That he was born free in New York during the time of slavery. Most of the African Americans we know about who lived during this time were born slaves in the South. Ira’s story expands our understanding of African American history.
That he attended the famous African Free School, which was founded in 1785 by the New York Manumission Society, an organization that advocated for the full abolition of African slavery. The Society’s members included the Founders, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Another notable alumnus of the African Free School is Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to become a university-educated physician.
His story is unique, yet universal. How many people throughout history have gone against their parents wishes’ to follow their own dream?
Finally, there is the Shakespeare angle. I loved Shakespeare long before I majored in English Lit in college. I was introduced to the Bard by my older sister, Jenny (who became a librarian). She used to entertain my younger siblings and me by reciting lines from Shakespeare. I can hear her, broom or mop in hand, bellowing, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me yours ears…”, “To be or not to be,” or “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
I thought of Jenny when I included the last two quotes in Ira’s Shakespeare Dream.
How important is it for parents to support their children’s interests? How do you think Ira’s story would be different if his father had supported his dream?
It is always important for parents to support their children. I think that Ira’s father believed he was doing what was best for his son when he encouraged Ira to become a preacher. His father was looking at the realities of life for African Americans in the early nineteenth century. And Ira might have had a good life, if he had followed his father’s wishes. What his father did not know was that Ira was destined for greatness.
What do you most admire about Ira Aldridge? Do you believe Ira is a relevant role model for young people today?
I admire Ira for knowing that, in this case, father did not know best, and for being strong and determined enough to follow his own dream. Ira had the self-confidence to blaze his own path. He did not let the lack of role models deter him. He worked hard, prepared himself for success, and was ready when the Wallack brothers gave him the break he needed.
I think Ira is a strong role model for young people today. He shows them that, despite life’s obstacles, they can follow their dream. We all face obstacles even though they may not be the ones that Ira faced. Young people can also follow Ira’s example by finding a way to use their talents and success to help others.
As a former teacher, which Shakespeare play is your favorite?
As a teacher, I would have to choose Romeo and Juliet. It is the play best known by young people. It is the one still being taught in most middle and high schools. Students readily identify with the two main characters. The plot is easily understood, and it is always fun to compare the original with various updated versions.
Though we have come a long way since Ira’s time, diversity in theater and screen time is still a topic of heated discussion today. Where do you think we’re at in this battle, and how far do you think we still need to go?
I tend to be optimistic. In theater, movies and literature, I want to see more good stories. That will necessarily include stories from people of all backgrounds.
We must take responsibility for our own success. Everyone faces obstacles. How we overcome those obstacles becomes part of our unique story. I believe that those who have talent, determination, discipline and patience will eventually succeed.
What we have today that Ira could not imagine, are people and companies like Lee and Low, whose mission is to produce work based on the experiences of people of diverse backgrounds. This does not mean that everything we submit will be accepted but it does mean that our work will be carefully considered. It means that we may be given advice and ideas to help us grow and improve our craft. This is a great time to be a story teller.
A great month for theater and exhibits, plus a bunch of new books! October is going to be great!
October is super exciting as it will see the publication of two very different books.
First, on Oct. 13, my collaboration with pal and artist extraordinaire Tony DiTerlizzi, THE STORY OF DIVA & FLEA will be released.
This is my first chapter book and I'm very excited to have some
It's back to school time!
September promises to be filled with fun theater, exhibitions, and mo'!
SERIOUSLY SILLY: THE ART & WHIMSY OF MO WILLEMS is on view at the HIGH MUSEUM in Atlanta, GA!
exhibit is based on the 2013 solo show at the Eric Carle Museum, with
added original work and cool interactive stuff. Don't miss it!
I'm very excited about the
It's SUMMER time! That means lots of vacation and fun, but also a whole bunch of appearances and theater and exhibits and movies and stuff to do.
June 2 sees the publication of a brand new Elephant & Piggie adventure, I WILL TAKE A NAP!
Gerald is careful. Piggie is not.
Piggie cannot help smiling. Gerald can.
Gerald worries so that Piggie does not have to.
Gerald and Piggie are
MAY is a busy month of appearances, theater, and a big exhibition. I look forward to seeing you if you're in the area.
The big news this month is the opening of SERIOUSLY SILLY: THE ART & WHIMSY OF MO WILLEMS at the HIGH MUSEUM in Atlanta, GA opening on MAY 23 and running through January of 2016.
The exhibit is based on the 2013 solo show at the Eric Carle Museum, with added
April is a fun month, the beginning of Mud Season here in central MA.
I've got a few appearances and lots of theater happening this month, all of which I hope you enjoy if you get the chance to pop by.
My first book, DON'T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS! was published 12 years ago on April 1st thanks to the efforts of my agent, Marcia Wernick, editor, Alessandra
Jack can't believe that he is moving from New York City to a suburb of Cleveland! He knows that it's where his dad is from, and that work is bringing him there, but for a kid city born and raised, the suburb and its stand alone houses aren't exactly familiar territory for him. His parents know he's feeling down when an offer of listening to the Into The Woods soundtrack is turned down.
Louisa is just coming down from being at Camp Curtain Up (theater camp if you can't tell) with the other MTNs (musical theater nerds). As she and her parents pull into their driveway, they notice that the new family is moving in two doors down. Louisa notices that the kid looks about her age, and then suddenly she notices his tshirt. It's from the musical Mary Poppins! This is a very interesting development. After all, up until now, Louisa was the only MTN in her grade!
If Louisa only knew! Jack's dad's job wasn't the only reason they were moving to Cleveland. Jack had lost a job himself. He is a theater kid, and not too long ago he was cast in the musical The Big Apple. And not in a bit part either. He was super excited to be part of the cast...until the first rehearsal. Jack is going into 7th grade, and his voice was changing. The notes no longer came easily...and sometimes they didn't come at all. So Jack was no longer first choice for the role. Which obviously made leaving NYC a heck of a lot easier.
In this age of google, Louisa finds out about Jack pretty quickly. And seeing as they are in the same class at school, she figures they are pretty much meant to be friends since they have so much in common. But Jack is thinking about reinvention. It's pretty easy to be a theater kid and be a boy in NYC, but in Cleveland he figures his soccer skills will make his life easier than his singing and dancing skills.
Sometimes, however, it's hard to turn off what you really love. And when the community theater announces it's putting on one of Jack's favorite shows of all time, will he be able to resist the call of the stage (let alone Louisa's influence)?
This is a pitch perfect middle school story that's not simply about theater, but drills down into issues of family, friendship and being true to oneself. Keenan-Bolger and Wetherhead get the voices spot on without ever venturing into over-the-top Glee caricatures. The alternating voices go back and forth in time, but are never confusing, rather a great device for giving the back story in pieces instead of one big chunk. Fans of Federle will eat this up, as will fans of realistic fiction and musical theater.
A new production of KNUFFLE BUNNY: A CAUTIONARY MUSICAL opens on Friday May 24th at Syracuse's Gifford family Theatre (school matinees begin on the 21st) and runs through mid-June.
Don't miss the action! The drama! The babbling! The HUGE dancing laundry!
Details and tickets are here!
If you're in the area, I hope you enjoy the production and tell 'em Mo sent ya!
I’m sure it will come as no surprise if we tell you that the 24th season of The Simpsons will not stand the test of time. In fact, if Anne Washburn’s new play Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, is any indication, not much will be remembered beyond season six.
In her new play, which was staged last year in Washington by the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York City earlier this week, storytelling is paramount in our world – post-nuclear holocaust. So much so, that reenacting scenes from the long-running animated series, mostly classic episodes like Bart of Darkness and A Streetcar Named Marge, is not simply entertainment, but a means of survival and coping with the fears of a newer, darker world.
The play opens with a group of friends around a campfire recalling lines from the classic Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” in which Sideshow Bob gets out of prison and begins stalking the Simpson family with the intent to murder Bart. The episode is a parody of the 1991 Robert DeNiro thriller, Cape Fear, which is itself a remake of a 1962 film. Early in the play, these details are mentioned by the characters, but the Simpsons episode then takes on a life of its own and adopts mythic qualities that transform it into a theatrical tragedy rivaling the work of Hesiod or Euripides.
This first scene, which was, according to Ben Brantley’s glowing review in the New York Times, scripted from early workshops as the actors tried to recall lines from the episode in question, is buoyant and funny. It’s a treasure to any hardcore fan of The Simpsons who will be hard pressed to not want to contribute to the conversation, while at the same time, tense and eerie and barely covering up an unknown horror that exists outside of the proscenium.
In the second of the show’s three parts, the campfire group evolves to a fledgling theater troupe, perfecting their version of Simpsons episodes for audiences in nearby areas. Their reenactments, honed by bartering with other survivors for their memories of random lines from the lost episodes, now include commercials and choreographed medleys of Top 40s hits. But regardless of how much they use their craft to distract themselves from the continued fear of uncertainty, it always comes back to The Simpsons and more specifically, Cape Feare.
“That single Simpsons episode becomes a treasure-laden bridge, both to the past and into the future,” says Brantley, “And in tracing a story’s hold on the imaginations of different generations, the play is likely to make you think back — way back — to narratives that survive today from millenniums ago. Every age, it seems, has its Homers.”
In the last part, the source material has been deconstructed and blended seamlessly with popular references as far apart as Britney Spears and How the Grinch Stole Christmas with Mr. Burns, Springfield’s dark specter of nuclear power, taking center stage as a post-modern Mephistopheles. The result is self-referential theater about a popular television series that deftly manages to dodge the precious, the pretentious and the snarky, high art about low art and the fuzzy line between the two. It’s a clever, compelling embodiment of storytelling as a cornerstone of our society and asking what, in our world, will live on after society falls and we are forced to rebuild.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play will be staged through October 20 at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater. It is written by Anne Washburn, directed by Steve Cosson, with music by Michael Friedman.
When I began work on my book, I knew I would be fortunate enough to experience a few moments of “Pinch me. This can’t really be happening.” There were, as it turned out, so many that I’d be black and blue if there was actual pinching going on. But of all of those moments, I think the highlight would have to be spending a day at Disneyland with Carol Channing and her late husband, Harry, who were then 90 and 91 respectively.
I had interviewed Carol the day before in front of an adoring audience at the annual Gay Days at Disneyland. But it had been decades since Carol had been in the park and the last time she was, her tour guide was, um, Walt Disney. She had a picture to prove it. Carol, Walt, and Maurice Chevalier on Main Street, USA! I couldn’t exactly beat that, but I did what I could. I mapped out the day with a full compliment of attractions starting gently enough with “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,“ an indoor show at which a robotic Abe recites the Gettysburg address. Carol was moved to tears. “It’s Walt!” she exclaimed. “This whole attraction is his spirit. Exactly who he was.” We emerged just in time to hear the Disneyland Marching Band emphatically playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” We clapped along before we hopped on “The Disneyland Railroad,” a steam train that circles the park. Carol grabbed my hand as we approached and began singing at full voice, “Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out…” the song from Hello, Dolly! that culminates with the full company boarding a similar train. We sang together as we chugged along. I died.
Mickey Mouse bows to Carol Channing. Photo courtesy of Eddie Shapiro.
We rode the Peter Pan ride and the tea cups, we met Mickey Mouse (who literally got on his knees and bowed down to Carol), and we had our own boat on “It’s a Small World.” It was all just as I had planned it until… the unexpected. As we were walking through Fantasyland, Harry kept staring in the direction of the carousel. I hadn’t planned on an attraction as simple as the carousel because, well, it’s a carousel. But I couldn’t help but notice Harry’s interest. “Harry,” I asked, “did you want to ride the carousel?” “I’m lookin’ at it,” came the reply. “Well Harry,” I said, “we’re here! If you want to ride it, let’s ride it.” We boarded and I went off in search of a nice bench for Carol and Harry. Carol seated herself but Harry was determined to mount a horse. At 91, however, he needed a hand or two, so I put my shoulder under his lower back and hoisted him up there. I then ran around to the other side and manually swung his leg astride the horse.
Harry, Carol Channing’s husband, on the carousel. Photo courtesy of Eddie Shapiro.
He was beaming, positively giddy. And in that moment, I realized that I was getting a major life lesson here. Carol and Harry were frail (he, in fact, passed less than three months later); one misstep could have been hugely consequential. A jostle from someone in the crowd could have been dire. But here they were, not just tasting everything life had to offer, but gobbling it up. If there was life to live, they were going to live it. And I thought to myself, “How does one become lucky enough to age into these people? Is it genetic? Is it a choice? What can I do to insure that when my golden years are upon me, I make them as golden as I can? Because these people have figured it out. They are who I aspire to be.”
When the sun was finally setting, we headed back to the hotel. I left them sitting in the lobby next to the grand piano while I went up to the room to retrieve their luggage. I returned just as the pianist was arriving for his set. He spied Carol and in no time he was gently tinkling the notes of “Hello, Dolly!” Before I knew what was happening, Carol was on her feet, one hand on the piano, the other aloft, belting out “Hello, Dolly!” for anyone who happened to be passing through the lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel at 4:30 in the afternoon. It was something to behold and a moment I will never, ever forget.
For months afterward, Harry would call me, just to say hello. “You don’t know the gift you gave us that day,” he would always end with. “Harry,” I’d always reply, “you don’t know the gift you gave me.”
Author Eddie Shapiro, Carol Channing, and her husband Harry on the tea cup ride at Disneyland. Photo courtesy of Eddie Shapiro.
Adapting animated films for the stage is no longer just the domain of feature films like "The Lion King" and "Shrek." Italian dance/theater troupe "eVolution" has adapted an unlikely animated short for live performance: Don Hertzfeldt's "Billy's Balloon."
April 1st marks the 11th anniversary of the publication of my first book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
Because of the support of Librarians, Teachers, Parents, Grand-Parents, and Fans the last 11 years have been a wonderful ride filled with opportunities for me to write, draw, and meet fantastic kids and grown-ups all over the world.
Thank you for this gift.
After three years of tryouts and short runs in a total of four different cities, Disney Theatrical’s version of "Aladdin" finally opened on Broadway March 20th at the New Amsterdam Theatre. So now that it's here, how does it compare to the animated "Aladdin" we all know and love? After seeing the musical a few days ago, here are my observations.
This past January I had the pleasure of creating images for the Pittsburgh Public Theater‘s season brochure—this time for the world premiere of L’Hôtel, a new comedy by Ed Dixon. The cast of characters is 6 stars from the recent and distant past. Art Director Paul Schifino asked me to create stand-alone caricatures of 3 of them: Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt. Here are sketches, painting-in-progress and the finished art of the Divine Sarah.
By the way, this painting and two others will be on display at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Alumni Show which opens this Friday evening.
I've decided to get back to using my blog as a means to chronicle and remember noteworthy happenings since it is not likely to be used for posting illustrations anytime soon. Though I may be taking a break from that side of my life, I am still spending my days doing things that keep my imagination going. This weekend's trip to NYC was certainly an extension of that. Knee-deep in my YA sci-fi book project, I've been listening to a plethora of science podcasts of late, including my favorite, StarTalk Radio, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Each time Neil introduces his show, he makes mention of being the director of the Hayden Planetarium---and after listening to dozens of shows (and thus dozens of intros) my already strong inclination to visit was catalysed into action. I've loved planetariums since I was a kid, and my best friend lives in Manhattan, so BAM. Finally made it happen. Adam and I arrived in the city Saturday afternoon, and planned our trip to the American Museum of Natural History for Sunday.
Yet Saturday was not without inspiring time of its own. Even just riding the commuter rail into the city gets my brain stirring. There's something deeply moving to me about watching the dilapidated buildings pass by on the train...especially when contrasted against the periodic splash of much nicer, upscale areas. The divide between wealth and poverty is a theme making its way into my story...so even an otherwise dull train ride became a useful piece of my weekend.
Saturday was lovely outside and included some walking around Central Park before getting dinner and heading to Broadway. We had tickets to see The Cripple of Inishmaan, a revival (and first time on Broadway) of Martin McDonagh's dark comedy featuring Daniel Radcliffe. The Gamm Theatre put on The Beauty Queen of Leenane just last season and I loved it, so I was primed for another McDonagh play - especially given the chance to also see Mr. Radcliffe's return to Broadway after missing him in How to Succeed.
Our seats were up pretty high in the balcony section so while they didn't offer up close views of the actors, it was still a great view of the stage. The set was beautiful and absolutely deserving of its recent Tony nomination. From our seats, we viewed the set at an almost isometric perspective, which made me appreciate the triangular, rotating stage piece even more. The play itself was quite funny with darker moments of sadness you'd expect from Martin McDonagh. What I hadn't anticipated was the overall sweetness the play would have. It was a crowd pleaser...less controversial perhaps than some of his other plays, and I have to admit I appreciated the moments of tenderness and humor.
Theater is quickly becoming another favorite form of storytelling. It's magical and bizarre and quite wonderful to watch a story unfold live before your eyes...your imagination carried away by actors becoming their characters, sets becoming a new place you've never been to, and the smallest of lighting cues creating an entirely different atmosphere, be it inside a village shop bathed in the beautiful golden glow of morning, or a bluish moonlit night by the sea. I'm always so charmed by the mileage simple theatrics get with such minimalism.
And I know Dan Radcliffe is the money-making draw for the show, but ALL the actors were excellent and well-worth attending for in their own right (I loved the aunties in particular). A great show. I really enjoyed it.
....now on to Sunday!
I've never been to the American Museum of Natural History before and was super impressed with the place. It's huge! We barely dipped our toes in the wealth of information there. Admittedly I was mostly there to see the planetarium show,Dark Universe, and to check out the fossils and dinosaurs (Adam's favorite). I LOVE PLANETARIUMS. Did I mention that already? Because I seriously LOVE planetariums. I wish I could sit in there all day long, day after day, watching every show they've made in the last few years on repeat. Because how can you not be blown away with how far our technology has come to allowing us to visualize and communicate this kind of information in such an accessible, inspiring way?! Dark Universe succeed at precisely that. Seeing the idea of red shift/universe expansion was awesome. Visualizing dark matter was fascinating. Thanks to pieces like this and the updated Cosmos series, my appreciation for science communicators and visualizers has multiplied exponentially.
Man, I LOVE PLANETARIUMS. Its like being on a rocket ship roller coaster ride through the universe. I can't get enough. Certainly not in only 25 minutes. But I guess that just means I'll be coming back again!
We were able to spend a bit of time breezing through other areas but truthfully we'd need to really take more time in each exhibit in order to not feel overwhelmed. Fortunately we did see the blue whale room, which was SO COOL. My husband and I had a fascination and appreciation for the dioramas that border the room. They were beautifully painted, sculpted, executed, what have you. An amazing example of many separate creative processes coming together for stunning results. I don't know who makes those things, but I'm sure glad they do.
It's funny to me...being at a museum. There's so much information inside, yet there are so many limitations to realistically appreciating and absorbing that knowledge. First of all, just walking around a place so large is exhausting. You start thinking about how much your feet hurt and less about what you're experiencing. Then before you know it you have to pee (so you waste time hunting for a bathroom). Or you get hungry so you have to stop to snack. Most of us breeze through museums without even scratching the surface. And from what I saw, if you bring kids, it's even worse. They don't have the attention span to read the information, they just want to run around, pressing buttons on exhibits or spinning the things that spin or turning the things that turn. I found myself imagining us museum visitors as aliens on planet Zorba, visiting the Museum of Zorban History...mommy and daddy aliens lugging around cumbersome strollers while kids whined about being bored. Here is an amazing place, a vast wealth of information cultivated by centuries worth of Zorban intellect and discovery. And yet there we are, modern day Zorban idiots staring thoughtlessly at the exhibits, wondering if they sell dehydrated astronaut ice cream in the museum gift shop (neapolitan, not that ice cream sandwich crap).
There are so many chances for us normal (aka not super intellectual) humans (or Zorbans) to learn new things that I find it deeply tragic how pedestrian we can be...
* * * * * * * * * * I think the best part of this past year has been reconnecting to my own curiosity. It's not so much that I stopped being a curious person, it's just that I suffered from a fear of information overload. Let's face it: there's a lot about everything that I don't understand. Old me tried to hide from that fact so I didn't have to think about how ignorant and stupid I am. But new me embraces the idea that there is so much out there to learn. Even if the majority of it goes well above my head, it still seems like the only quest worth taking. I've always had a deeply rooted fear and fascination with space in particular --seeing Apollo 13, trips to air shows, and the Air & Space Museum as a kid enhanced a natural attraction to the topic. It's always been in the back of my head as a subject area. But for the last 20 years or so it hasn't had a way to come back into my life. Now age 29, I have the luxury of time and freedom to learn (at my own pace) about areas that truly get down deep and move me. Space and space exploration seem like the only things that matter in some ways... I get sad thinking that within my lifetime we may not make as much progress as I would like to see---certainly not as much as I thought we'd make when I was a child. I hope big things do happen. I hope big answers are pursued, and I hope we get some amazing returns on our investments. Even if I'm just a nobody artist/writer with no scientific background, I can appreciate what space means to me as a human being. I may never be an astronaut or a scientist or an engineer, but that doesn't mean I can't live vicariously and reap the rewards of the people who are out there doing amazing things---and adding to the wealth of knowledge for which all humans can be grateful.
November 4th, 2014 will see the release of Elephant and Piggie's newest adventure, WAITING IS NOT EASY!
It sure isn't.
Because waiting really, really is not easy, I'll be giving a sneak peek reading and signing of the new Elephant and Piggie adventure 2 days early!
DON'T WAIT! Come on by:
Sunday, November 2nd
at the ERIC CARLE MUSEUM OF PICTURE
As a bioethics teaching method, narrative genomics highlights the breadth of individuals affected by next-gen technologies — the conversations among professionals and families — bringing to life the spectrum of emotions and challenges that envelope genomics. Recent controversies over genomic sequencing in children and consentissues have brought fundamental ethical theses to the stage to be re-examined, further fueling our belief in drama as an interdisciplinary pedagogical approach to explore how society evaluates, processes, and shares genomic information that may implicate future generations. With a mutual interest in enhancing dialogue and understanding about the multi-faceted implications raised by generating and sharing vast amounts of genomic information, and with diverse backgrounds in bioethics, policy, psychology, genetics, law, health humanities, and neuroscience, we have been collaboratively weaving dramatic narratives to enhance the bioethics educational experience within varied professional contexts and a wide range of academic levels to foster interprofessionalism.
Dramatizations of fictionalized individual, familial, and professional relationships that surround the ethical landscape of genomics create the potential to stimulate bioethical reflection and new perceptions amongst “actors” and the audience, sparking the moral imagination through the lens of others. By casting light on all “the storytellers” and the complexity of implications inherent with this powerful technology, dramatic narratives create vivid scenarios through which to imagine the challenges faced on the genomic path ahead, critique the application of bioethical traditions in context, and re-imagine alternative paradigms.
Because narrative genomics is a pedagogical approach intended to facilitate discourse, as well as provide reflection on the interrelatedness of the cross-disciplinary issues posed, we ground our genomic plays in current scholarship and ensure that it is accurate scientifically as well as provide extensive references and pose focused bioethics questions which can complement and enhance the classroom experience.
In a similar vein, bioethical controversies can also be brought to life with this approach where bioethics reaching incorporates dramatizations and excerpts from existing theatrical narratives, whether to highlight bioethics issues thematically, or to illuminate the historical path to the genomics revolution and other medical innovations from an ethical perspective.
Varying iterations of these dramatic narratives have been experienced (read, enacted, witnessed) by bioethicists, policy makers, geneticists, genetic counselors, other healthcare professionals, basic scientists, bioethicists, lawyers, patient advocates, and students to enhance insight and facilitate interdisciplinary and interprofessional dialogue.
Dramatizations embedded in genomic narratives illuminate the human dimensions and complexity of interactions among family members, medical professionals, and others in the scientific community. By facilitating discourse and raising more questions than answers on difficult issues, narrative genomics links the promise and concerns of next-gen technologies with a creative bioethics pedagogical approach for learning from one another.
Heading image: Andrzej Joachimiak and colleagues at Argonne’s Midwest Center for Structural Genomics deposited the consortium’s 1,000th protein structure into the Protein Data Bank. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The question is not whether it was appropriate for the Metropolitan Opera to stage this important and controversial piece, but rather, did they do it right? Did they mount it so that its poetic, dramatic and musical potential was well realized?
The challenge is great. Poet Alice Goodman’s libretto operates on multiple levels. Using poetic imagery, she not only explores the stories of the individual characters and some elements of the complex relationship between Jews and Palestinians but also larger human dilemmas. She sets the specifics in the context of the elements: earth (desert), water (ocean) and the sun (which effectively burns with fierce intensity throughout much of the second act of this production.)
The director, Tom Morris, has added the plant kingdom. Building on the Exiled Jews’ line, “the forest planted in memory,” he has the chorus bring on a small forest of young saplings – many of which are produced from large trunks. In so doing, he adds additional layers of meaning and memory – both that of the reforestation of Israel, but also that of the baggage of refugees everywhere, and specifically of the luggage lugged with false hopes to the camps.
It is at once a piece recalled in memory and an evocation of a present reality. As a memory piece Goodman does not need to tell the story sequentially and is free to present the events from multiple perspectives.
Here, too, Morris and his set designer, Tom Pye, have effectively amplified the libretto. By manipulating the set pieces they show us the killing of Klinghoffer first from the back and then from the front – vividly embodying different views. They also chose to portray the moment when Omar, a young terrorist, shoots – shifting our perspective in a different way. It effectively destroys any sympathy that we might have developed for him in his earlier aria/dance.
The success of this production stands on three pillars. One is the strong and subtle conducting of David Robertson. A second is the casting. The singing was uniformly excellent and the principals were believable. Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer (Alan Opie & Michaela Martens) presented a particularly interesting casting challenge, since it is crucial that their voices are beautiful and yet have an appropriately mature timbre. Both these demands were satisfyingly met. The third pillar of the success lies in the decision to reject the more abstract and cerebral approach taken in the original productions and to ground the work in particular and recognizable locales with the performers costumed in character-appropriate clothes.
The production team also chose not to represent Leon and Marilyn with dance doubles as was originally done, which increased our ability to empathize with their suffering. The convention was, however, retained for Omar. His is a mute role but for one major aria in which the piece takes the irredeemable step from threat to murder. The aria was sung by a woman in a dark burqa. However, she was not alone with him. On a receding diagonal behind her stood a line of identically dressed women evoking generations of tradition handed from mother to son. As she sang, Omar went through painful convulsions–of indecision? of fear? After the aria, he began his fateful walk towards Klinghoffer, gun in hand.
The set established three different locales – the first two were fluid and sometimes simultaneous. One was a lecture hall (or theater) represented by a lectern stage left; the other was the cruise ship, Achille Lauro, represented by railing pieces, deck chairs and by two moveable double-level ship’s deck units. When the Captain lies to the authorities about the violence onboard, the lectern becomes integrated with the ship as a stand for the phone. This choice effectively forces him to move out of memory to re-living one of his most painful choices during the high-jacking.
The final scene, in which the Captain admits to Marilyn that the terrorists have killed her husband, has a setting all its own. Inexorably, two giant panels close in – reducing the stage to a triangular space empty but for a single chair. Are we in the ship’s hold? Are we in a truth chamber or one of horrors? We don’t know, but it is a formidable and unforgiving space. And, indeed, neither the Captain nor Marilyn can escape.
Over a period of two dozen years, the director Peter Sellars brought together the team of John Adams and Alice Goodman to co-create three vitally important works: Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Dr. Atomic (2005). All are based on recent events with profound implications for our times. All three are oratorio-like. The stories are dramatic but their form is static. And yet we are drawn to these pieces. Confronted by the issues they embody – as we are in our media, our wallets and in the political choices made by our leaders, do we cry out for a distanced format? Do we seek a cool presentation that gives us time to review and reflect? Surely. And yet, in these quasi-operas, I miss the visceral excitement generated by works in which conflicts between unique individuals are directly portrayed in singing and acting. For me, the success of the Met’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer is that it restores some of this urgency, vitality and feeling.
Headline image credit: Full House at the Metropolitan Opera. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
December is here and there's lots to talk about, including an appearance and exciting new stuff!
Elephant and Piggie's WAITING IS NOT EASY! came out last month and the response has been nice. Thanks to you, the story debuted at #2 on The New York Times Bestseller List. (Not to be left out, THE PIGEON NEEDS A BATH! joined Waiting is Not Easy! on the next 2 weeks).
The New York Times
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Thanks for making 2014 such a great year at Knuffle Manor. 2015 promises to have lots of exciting events, theater performances, books, and more. Here's a taste of what's scheduled this year as of now.
Productions of ELEPHANT & PIGGIE'S WE ARE IN A PLAY! in Nashville, TN; Syracuse, NY; Orlando, FL; and Washington, DC plus a production of Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical
Lots to do this month. Hope you can make it to one of these events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Amherst.
Thursday, Feb. 5, Pasadena, CA
11 am- READING & SIGNING AT VROMAN'S BOOKSTORE
695 E. Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91101
I'll spend the morning reading, answering questions, & signing books in my only LA area appearance for a while. If you're in the area,
March is looking to be a great fun Month with lots of Theater all over the country, appearances in Amherst, MA and, for the first time, New Zealand!
But first a quick look at last month:
What a fun month February was; starting out with a surprise call from the Geisel Committee informing me that Elephant & Piggie's WAITING IS NOT EASY! had garnered a Geisel Honor!
This was a