Saturday, November 10, 2018

Whitey on the Moon

Close to 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong was the first man to land on the moon.

This landing — only the first of six that occurred between 1968 and 1973 — is an all but forgotten scene from American history. It’s importance to us lies more in its context than it what it achieved.

The “one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind” and President Kennedy’s desire to prove that Americans could do things precisely because they are difficult fell prey to a meaningless yet deadly war in Vietnam; a string of political assassinations of progressive leaders; race riots; domestic bombings and the National Guard shooting of students at Kent State; President Nixon’s impeachment and resignation — and most recently to reality TV.

The “space race” was just that: an hubristic enterprise by white American men, spending billions of dollars of public money to beat their Russian counterparts to the moon while America burned.

African-American musician Gil Scot-Heron captured the sentiment at the time with his poem and song, “Whitey on the Moon:” “I can’t pay no doctor bills / but Whitey’s on the moon… / No hot water, no toilets, no lights / but Whitey’s on the moon…"

Armstrong’s landing might have imbued us with a reverence for our planet and its solar system. Instead, it became just another victory march for white Americans, plowing forward, as Armstrong’s wife Janet says (her fear-based anger well portrayed by Clare Foy in “First Man,” the recent Damien Chazelle film epic of Armstrong’s flight, now playing at Opera House Arts), like “boys with balsa wood toys.” The program persisted through loss after loss of astronauts killed as test pilots and, most famously, three burned in their capsule before the takeoff of Apollo 1 in 1967. After which, we were rewarded with many shots of other astronauts planting the flag -- along with a bit of scientific research.

There just wasn't much to find on the moon itself. As Armstrong put it before he even went, what we might get was, at best, most likely to be a clearer picture of ourselves in context from outer space — one we perhaps should have had already. Armstrong himself came back from his first flight beyond the atmosphere in amazement at how thin it was.

That was 50 years ago. Little did he know that oversized U.S. fossil fuel consumption would make our atmosphere even thinner and more fragile in the years to come.

Despite the awe and positive impact sparked by the Apollo voyages' famous “blue marble” image of the earth from outer space, we’ve continued to exploit the planet more than steward it. We've continued to be distracted by political mayhem, and remained unable to invest in solving the problems of the most needy right here in our own country. In all of this, we follow in the all-too-large footsteps of that first “whitey on the moon."

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,