Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Dahlov Ipcar's Joyful Visions at Bates Museum of Art

Sheep of Insight, oil by Dahlov Ipcar
in the exhibit "Blue Moons & Menageries"
Bates Art Museum through October 6
One of the great pleasures of working in the arts -- well, really, of being human -- is making time to see a lot of it. Performance, concerts, films, exhibits: we each have the chance to exult in the human imagination and creativity.

This is perhaps particularly important when the news of our day to day lives is as dark as it has been of late. If you, like me, are a citizen of the world's richest nation -- a country which makes up 5% of the world's population and consumes 25% of its energy resources -- you'd expect the default value to be one of generosity.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. Rather, our default appears to be fear. Which on the ground is translating into a new "zero tolerance" policy for immigrants and asylum seekers at our southern border. More than 2,000 children have been separated from their families in this ignominious action, an attempt by the President to bully Congress into passing the immigration legislation he wants.

Let's be 1,000% clear: separating children from their families is an act of torture.

In the meantime, I, while speaking out, sending money, and planning to put my body in the streets to protest the regime that is now running our country, was also able to enjoy my first world privileges and take in this exciting new exhibit at the Bates Art Museum today.

"Dahlov Ipcar: Blue Moons & Menageries" is brilliant to behold. In color, yes, but most importantly in the maker's internal vision of life.

Like every Mainer I've ever met, Ipcar's vision is completely her own. Unique. Visionary. Her animals have third eyes. The painted insides of their bodies often represent the worlds around them. Looking at these paintings, I could feel the expansive peace that rushes in and opens out when one looks into one's own mind to see such images.

She seems to have expressed her magical vision of the world effortlessly, in uncountable paintings (some oil, some watercolor); wood block prints; soft sculptures; textile collage; needlepoint; drawings; books...and farming.

Continuing to make art to her final days, Dahlov Ipcar lived in Georgetown, Maine, off of Bath, until she was 99 years old.

THIS is what it means to be an American. Here is empathy and compassion, for the world via animals, extended far beyond the individual self. This is why we create.

Go make some art. And, failing that, get to Lewiston to see this exhilarating, inspiring, joyous exhibit.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ragtime is Our Time

Racism? Immigration? Musical theater?

Yep. You can catch all three in intimate relationship right now in the musical "Ragtime" at the Ogunquit Playhouse through August 26.

Among the many high performance treats of summer in Maine, the 85-year-old Ogunquit Playhouse, on the National Register of Historic Places, with its legacy of being "America's Foremost Summer Theatre," is surely near the top.

Especially when history nicely synchronizes itself with the theater's production calendar, as it does currently with its production of "Ragtime," based on the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name.

It's the story of a talented black musician, humiliated by some working class white men, who seeks his revenge in a bomb-throwing, hostage-taking kind of way.

And, as a parallel narrative, an oppressed Jewish immigrant who makes good in America's nascent film world and marries up.

The face of Lady Liberty graces the
Ogunquit Playhouse's production
of "Ragtime."
The production opens with a gloriously giant mask of the face of Lady Liberty gracing center stage, a talisman for the audience to reflect upon before the actors arrive.

You can't make this stuff up - I mean, wait, you don't have to. It's all in our headlines, right now. Don't forget, this season had to have been planned and cast at least a year ago. The fates of current events are shining on "Ragtime"'s relevance.

A child of the tumultuous 1970's myself, I love that "Ragtime" is oft described as "a unique adaptation of the historical narrative genre with a subversive 1970s slant" -- by which its describers mean that it's author wielded a distinctly politicized, progressive point of view.

The musical's beating heart is a score based in the gorgeous genre of music of the same name, which, with its melding of African-American jazz to pop, came to define the U.S. during the opening of the 20th century. But its story is pure National Book Award winner Doctorow's.

In an effort to educate middle-class white Americans on our history, Doctorow wrote several pastiches, bringing together motley assortments of historical characters to provide us with a snapshot of the political and social history and turmoil that defined the U.S. during the 20th century.

"Ragtime" was his first in this genre, bringing together to the page and later to the stage the anarchist activist Emma Goldman; the pop-culture, Hungarian immigrant sideshow hero Harry Houdini; the "notorious socialite" Evelyn Nesbit, lover of murdered architect Sanford White; financier/robber baron J.P. Morgan; and black, turn-of-the-century politician Booker T. Washington. Its protagonists are the African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, modeled on a 19th century German novella of a similar name; the Jewish immigrant artist, Tateh and his daughter; and the eponymous "Mother" -- who surprises with her fierceness.

You can't watch this musical -- even without the subliminal reminder of Lady Liberty looking out over the audience during the pre-show and entre'act -- without your heart swelling for America's oppressed groups -- its immigrants, its former slaves -- to be victorious over the wealthy white family from New Rochelle against whom they are based. So for those of you who prefer Republican policies on these matters: come prepared to be transformed.

Yet as with any good and true story, the conflicts are not easily resolved. Will the musical's underdog protagonists -- Coalhouse, Tateh --  triumph in the end? With the use of violence, following the radicalism of Goldman; or of political persuasion, in the mode of Booker T. Washington?

That is for all of you not only to witness at the Playhouse, but to play your own supporting role for in our country right now, as we circle back around on these yet-to-be-resolved issues of the who, what, why, and how of being an American.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The High Performance Events of Summer

Summer in Maine displays the full diversity of the state’s many marvelous ecosystems—including the performing arts, which bloom with the energy and color of dinner-plate dahlias -- and, like dahlias, are extremely temporal. I’ve been lucky to immerse myself in a number of high quality, diverse performances in the last three weeks alone.

Vaudevillian Thom Wall at Celebration Barn's
Big Barn Spectacular in July.
Photo by Michael Menes.
I made the not-as-far-as-you-fear trek out to South Paris in western Maine to take in, for my second time, Celebration Barn’s Big Barn Spectacular. The Barn is a centerpiece of Maine performance history, founded by internationally-renowned mime Tony Montanaro and extending his legacy to generations of Maine mimes, jugglers, clowns, and eclectic performers who return here each summer to hone their crafts and delight audiences. This year’s Spectacular featured several Barn / Cirque du Soleil alumni, the most astounding of which was juggler Thom Wall, acclaimed as “a master of modern vaudeville.” Thom balanced stacks of many glasses and other breakable things (such as balloons) on the edges and points of knives themselves balanced on each other and held in his mouth…yeah. You have to see it. And personally, I fell in love with a new act by old Maine friends Mike Miclon, Executive Director of Johnson Hall; two of his sons, Shane and Collin; the Barn’s Executive Director Amanda Houtari and several others — The Buckfield (ME) Synchronized Swim Team. Again, its vaudeville: you have to be there. So head west, to Celebration Barn, before the summer is over!

Next I headed Down East to Stonington: also not as far as you might think (if you were a New Yorker with a summer place in the Hamptons or the Catskills, you’d be making trips of this length every weekend). There, at Opera House Arts at the 1912 Stonington Opera House, on the National Register of Historic Places (for which I was founding Executive Director until 2015), I took in an original performance of the nation’s longest running and arguably most beloved Off Broadway musical: The Fantasticks. The song “Try to Remember” is what most remember from this twist on several Shakespearean classics, notably "Romeo & Juliet;" and established Shakespeare in Stonington co-founder and director Julia Whitworth (who “moonlights” as an Episcopal priest) brought her usual smarts and a few plot twists to the show that gave it more of a feminist edge than you might expect.

Finally, in a two-for-one hat trick of a week to end July and ring in August, I caught both a staged workshop reading of Maine playwright John Cariani’s newest, cul-de-sac, at Portland Stage; and Bates Dance Festival’s original, site-specific commission, Mill Town, at the Bates Mill in Lewiston.

Playwright John Cariani and Director Sally Wood at the
Portland Stage workshop for John's new work.
Photo by Aaron Flacke.
The former - a typically-Cariani, fast-talking, dialogue-driven, humorous take on the American obsession with happiness (and its fall outs) — is a tribute to the work of Portland Stage and its Affiliate Artist Program in the development of original Maine theater. This is the only way high quality new plays come to us in a finished form - they must be workshopped: heard by and responded to by live audiences for the playwright to understand whether the script works or not. The staged reading, well directed as always by Affiliate Artist Sally Wood and with terrific acting by AA Abby Killeen, was followed by a lively feedback session with highly engaged (read: opinionated) audience members: just the ticket for John to work on the next iteration of his script, which will join Almost, Maine, Last Gas, and Love Sick among his published works.

A scene from the prelude to Mill Town in the courtyard
of the Bates Mill.
Mill Town, directed and choreographed by Stephan Koplowitz, holds the honor of being the finest all around performance I’ve seen in Maine in a long time. In a fitting tribute to outgoing 30-year Artistic Director Laura Faure, to whom it was dedicated, Mill Town used Lewiston-Auburn’s, and the Mill’s, history and artifacts to propel Bates Dance Festival dancers through and around the mill’s remarkable spaces. The original music, choreography, video, scenic and lighting design, and of course performances gave us, the audience, an extremely special and intimate way (despite there being more than 200 in attendance) to witness and experience this place. From the opening tableaux of young dancers, in costumes reminiscent of Bates Mill workers clothing, to the six small performances on the third floor and the grand finale on the fourth, this was an evening of magic that I was glad to have shown up for.

Still to come; Ragtime at the 85-year-old Ogunquit Playhouse; and Orgelfest 2017, a celebration of Portland’s famed Kotzschmar Organ with retiring municipal organist Ray Cornils and the Kotzschmar Festival Brass.

Yes, there are lobsters and lighthouses on the coast, canoes and camps on the lakes, hikers and hills in the west. And strung throughout all of these, like the glass floats on a Japanese fishing net, are Maine art, performance, and historic cultural venues. Be sure to add these to your summer collection. Remember, with live performance: you have to be there. Locate a place, travel to it, and experience it. I can guarantee that, like me, you won’t be disappointed. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Imploring our Elected Officials: Stand Up for Democratic Institutions

February 5, 2017

Dear Senator Collins,

I’m scared. And I need to know you have the backs of myself and fellow Mainers.

I’m a rural Mainer; a gay woman; a state employee; a practicing Catholic; a theater professional with a degree in American Studies. I’ve spent my adult life studying, defending, and practicing American democracy. I’ve served my time both as an elected community official and as an appointed member of municipal committees, as well as a board member for numerous community nonprofit organizations.

Many of the acts of the current administration, in its first two weeks, make me fear not for particular policies, but more importantly for the institution of democracy we hold so dear and proudly.

I am writing to implore you, as Maine’s most senior congressional representative, to find the courage to lead, at this moment in history, with even more integrity than ever before: to take the continuous actions essential to supporting the pillars of our democracy.

There are a majority of voters of both parties who will stand behind you. We must believe our democracy matters to us all, matters more to each of us than partisan alliances and politics. We need your voice of moderation, courage, and integrity now more than ever.

Through you, Maine’s proud legacy of female political leadership, highlighted by Margaret Chase Smith, can stay alive – but only if you are willing to uphold Maine’s values in the face of some of the administration’s current actions.

We look to you to actively and vocally support the following:

1.     An independent Congress and Judiciary, acting in their appropriate roles of checks and balances on Executive branch power;
2.     An independent media, in existence and necessary to provide an additional check and balance on those in power;
3.     Cabinet and Supreme Court nominations of individuals who support and have expertise in government precedence and the departments they have been selected to lead;
4.     Transparency and equity: proper disclosure of and appropriate action on personal financial statements, including President Trump’s tax returns and the holdings of Betsy DeVos, so that Congress and the Judiciary can determine how to handle potentially debilitating and dangerous conflicts of interest that pose threats to our national security.
5.     Policies and programs, such as the the ADA, the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicaid, the NEA, and Public Broadcasting, which help to ensure that every American, regardless of wealth or position, is able to benefit from the basic privileges of being a citizen of or refugee or immigrant to the world’s wealthiest nation.
6.     A compassionate national government that seeks to extend its overwhelming wealth and natural resources to those who continue to suffer worldwide.

It is my hope you will raise your voice in support for these crucial pillars of our democracy; that you will vote and advocate for only those cabinet and Supreme Court nominations of individuals who are well qualified for their intended positions and support long-standing federal precedents; and that you will actively demand financial transparency of all existing and potential federal officials, as well as the steps necessary to eliminate glaring conflicts of interest that damage our democracy and safety.

Senator Collins, I’m scared and I hope you are, too. Belligerent leadership, rife with financial conflicts of interest, disrespect for the balance of powers and a demonstrated disregard for facts and truth endangers our nation. As an elected leader in whom we have placed our trust, you are one of an elite few in a position to stand against these actions.

You are in a difficult position, one in which we ask you to step up and be, at times, in opposition to your party and its President. Your demonstration of such integrity, however, is vital to the preservation of our democracy. Every one of us is needed to build the fair and equitable democracy in which we and the Founders, regardless of their historical limitations, believed. Without your strong voice and leadership, it might be lost: a tragedy of a scale few can even imagine.

Thank you in advance for your leadership and your service on our behalves.

most sincerely,

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What Effective Political Idealism Might Look Like

I wrote most of what follows for Maine’s caucus day on Sunday. I am republishing it here today because I find the increased rhetoric from liberals who support Sanders, as well as his “victory” in Michigan, upsetting.

The increased polarization of the electorate bodes well for no one.

To the many liberals who continue to push for Sanders and to denounce Clinton, I hope you will read this carefully as a cautionary tale. In Maine, the liberals who are crowing about Sanders victories are the exact same people who voted early for Libby Mitchell for Governor in 2010 because she said what they wanted to hear. And the increasingly vitriolic denouncements of Clinton—including those Sanders supporters who say they will not come out to vote for Clinton--indicate only that the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, are wrestling with a body politic that fears a woman in power and is under-educated about how democratic change truly happens.

Like many Mainers and unlike the majority of Americans, I live in a small, rural community.

I know everyone and they know me. Most of us spend a lot of time volunteering - for our schools, ambulance corps, fire departments, community nonprofits and municipal governments - to make our communities work and to encourage them to thrive.

We’re all so wonderfully various! Aging hippies. Young adults coming into their own as entrepreneurs. Middle-aged adults, with or without kids, some activists and some not. Pioneering artists. Fishermen. The elderly retired, the elderly infirm. And across all of these demographics are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. To move the needle forward we have to find common cause with those whose perspectives and beliefs are different from ours. We have to make compromises and deals and know that we can continue to hold our ideals while respecting others and moving toward them for the sake of a bigger, more common good.

The empathy, tolerance and respect required by small community life has traditionally been a hallmark of Maine culture, whose Senators have proudly included Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Margaret Chase Smith alongside George Mitchell, Ed Muskie, and Mike Michaud.

To regain our civility and continue the change that eight years of the Obama administration started, we have to understand that real change happens in the middle ground between us. A sweet spot that neither end of ideology — liberal or conservative — represents. This is why I find the extremely polarized nature of the current Presidential election so depressing — particularly on the liberal side.

The conservatives can deal with their own house. I’m talking about the ways liberals, progressives, Democrats and the like often shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to electoral politics.

It appears, from evidence on the great blogosphere, from Nader’s impact on Florida in 2000 and the many small elections that lead up to that, from our own three-way races for governor in Maine, that few of us have received adequate training on how to be an effective citizen for democratic change, i.e., how to move forward together for the sake of a common good. The evolution of American culture and media have made it far easier to cling to our individual identities and to the ideologies that support those.

Understanding and valuing a common good means that as citizens we are required to move our votes out of the realm of ideas and personalities we "like" or don't like: away from ideology and toward common cause.

This doesn't mean the end of idealism, although it does mean the end of ideology.

I remember my own youthful idealism, when the only things that mattered were our radical beliefs for "a better world" and the sometimes extreme ideologies that pulled us toward these personal utopias. 

I am idealistic for a better world these days in a different way. Oh yes, I absolutely believe we need to deal solidly and effectively with income inequality. Our work for education and against poverty is paramount to me.

Yet based on my experience in community, I am also aware that we have very different ideas about how to achieve these goals. And as an historian, I am very aware that the characteristics that most distinguish American culture from the European models held up by most liberals is that we are a country founded on a tax revolt and with an urban (manufacturing/banking/big government) / rural (agrarian/slaveholding/local control) split at our core (for those who don’t know the history of our two parties, start with Hamilton on Broadway!).

My idealism today is for a civil, democratic world in which we respect each other in all our (conservative/liberal urban/rural black/white male/female etc. etc.) differences, and demonstrate that respect by not only finding common cause but rolling up our sleeves and getting to work with those with whom we disagree. It is an idealism against ideology and for commonality--or community. For liberals, that means that Republican community members often have good ideas, too. It is an idealism for the sweet spot in the middle, not for a tenacious clinging to either end.

This idealism informs my decisions about for whom to vote. To be effective, our votes have to represent our hopes that change is possible for all of us: not just socialists on the left and Tea Partyers on the right. Not just for the usual types of authority we've been taught to trust (white, male) and not just against those whose solutions we consider "crazy." Our votes have to represent our knowledge that the middle ground is not only respectful but effective in moving us toward the better world for which we are all crying out.

Ideology, as advanced through rhetoric, is about ideas, not people. One can favor the idea of increased national security and be deaf to its impact on refugees. One can be opposed to income inequality and be oblivious to the the fact that change requires bringing vested interests along for the ride.

If leadership is only inspiring others to follow a shared vision, then both Trump and Sanders are performing beautifully in this race for President. But isn't leadership also about knowing how to work with those who disagree with you? Acknowledging the validity of their beliefs, fears, and solutions, and being willing to meet them half way to get the job done?

Our current American “idealism” for ideologies on the far left and far right bodes ill for the long term future of our democracy, because a democracy depends on voters willing to give up individual positions to ensure better governance for our common world. Through our behavior and rhetoric and public education system, through the mass media and social media, we are educating our young people only to follow their individual hearts and beliefs. These are important, but not all that make an effective voting electorate.

Yes: I continue to believe that the ends keep pulling the center forward, and are therefore always necessary. I am glad Bernie Sanders entered this race to do just that. I also know, after advocating for women's, gay, and economic rights for 35 years, that real change doesn't happen in “one fell swoop.” It does not surprise me that Sanders support is heaviest among white, young liberals; demographics who rarely question what their own privilege really means, or how it takes shape in the world. I support Hilary because she shows more respect for and understanding of how to work with my fellow community members, and can get the job done.

I’m crossing my fingers that we can rally behind her, and that liberals as well as conservatives don’t again shoot American progressivism in the foot by clinging to ideologically-based voting.