Monday, December 15, 2014

FSU/Asolo Conservatory Musical Theater Showcase

Having only seen the second year FSU/Asolo Conservatory students perform David Mamet's "The Water Engine," I hadn't quite fallen in love with them yet.  (Note: I hate David Mamet plays.)  Last week-end's musical theater showcase went a long way towards changing that.

David Brunetti
The first and second year students had worked all week with David Brunetti, who is both a teacher and a vocal coach.  It was obvious from the students' enthusiasm that they love working with Brunetti.  And the feeling is clearly mutual.  Brunetti praised the students, saying how brave and deep and beautifully trained they are. He told the students to "live" their songs and not to be afraid to go into the dark and silly places.

The students did just that as, one by one, they took the stage and sang their hearts out.  Considering that musical talent is not among the criteria considered for admission into the program, the students were amazing.  They performed a broad range of music, from tunes from musicals both well- and little-known to songs by popular artists to what I suspect were songs from audition repertoires.

As the showcase progressed, I thought about the choices the students had made and which selections seemed to be the most successful.  Overall, humor won the day -- at least in my book.  Second year student Kim Peterson got the ball rolling with "If You Hadn't, but You Did" from "Two on the Aisle 1951."  She sang about all the ways her lover had two-timed her, from giving her a whiff of  unfamiliar perfume to being seen rowing another woman around in a skiff.  The audience was already with Kim when she pulled out a green plastic toy gun, took aim and sang, "If you weren't, If you hadn't...But you were, And you have.. And so, goodbye." (The student who took the stage after Kim started off by jokingly saying, "Well, s**t," at the prospect of going after her performance.) 

Our favorite stalker
Second year student Josh James sang a song by Kooman + Dimond called "To Excess" about the always-hilarious subject of a stalker.  With perfect timing and style, James had the audience rolling with lyrics like, "Claire, I need you around me, That's why I broke into your place.  That's why you came home and found me with your panties pressed to my face."  When he took the stage, I wondered why he was wearing shorts on a rather chilly day.  There was a method to his madness, as the shorts enabled him to show the audience how he had carved Claire's name into his thigh. What a romantic.  (For the lyrics in their entirety, click here.)

Second year student Jordan Sobel took on "I Am Adopho" from "The Drowsy Chaperone." He had the audience eating out of his hands as he gyrated and encouraged us to shout out his name on cue.  (Dorrit and I happily did so.)  Mark Homer got the audience involved as well with his rendition of "Don't Be the Bunny" from "Urinetown."  (In case you're not familiar with the song--I wasn't--it goes into all the ways bunnies can get into trouble and end up dead.  In one stanza, Homer sang, "Don't be the bunny.  Don't be the stew.  Don't be the dinner.  You have better things to do.")  Both were great selections because you enjoyed them whether or not you'd seen the shows.  

Brunetti surrounded by the students
It was 90 minutes of pure enjoyment.  When Brunetti took the stage at the end, he was near tears with pride at how well the students had done. "Life," Bunetti said, "Can be so tough and lonely, and art and theater and acting and music make it so much more tolerable."  I wholeheartedly concur. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Tribes" at Florida Rep's ArtStage Studio Theater

As much as I love going to the theater, it's not unusual for me to leave a show and never give it another thought. And so when scenes from a play keep returning to me more than a week later, I know I saw something special. "Tribes" at Florida Rep's ArtStage Studio Theater was just such a performance.

In a nutshell, the story sounds almost run of the mill. "Tribes" is about a family with three grown children, all of whom live at home. There's the obvious conflict that arises from the situation.  One of the sons meets a woman and the relationship leads him to break away from the family unit.  More conflict ensues. The family eventually reaches a tentative truce (although you know it is not a "happily ever after" story.)

This synopsis does not, however, even begin to scratch the surface of this particular nut.  Billy, you see, is a young deaf man born into a hearing family.  In the opening scene of the play, the family sits around a dinner table engaged in an animated conversation/argument.  Billy is at the head of the table, quietly taking it all in.  Wanting their son to be as "normal" (and as much like them) as possible, the parents decided not to teach him how to sign.  Instead, he learned to read lips and body language--quite well-- but he still is forever on the outside asking, "What's happening?"

As the play progresses, Billy attends a Deaf event where he meets Sylvia, a hearing woman whose parents are deaf.  Sylvia is losing her hearing, which puts her in a painful in-between world.  Unlike a person who's born deaf, she knows what she is losing, and it is heartbreaking to watch the joy of music and the ability to articulate her words slip from her grasp.  As Billy and Sylvia become a couple, he learns to sign, and it opens a whole new world for him.  The scene when he tells his parents that Sylvia is teaching him sign language is as fraught with emotion as a child coming out of the closet.

The play has so many layers that I cannot begin to do it justice here.  The Merriam-Webster definition of "tribe" is "a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities...with a common culture and dialect."  In every person's life, you come to a crossroads where you make choices about who "your" people are.  It's not typically as dramatic a choice, though, as the one that Billy is making.

I learned from the program notes that, "When capitalized, Deaf refers to a culture, as distinct from deaf, which is a pathological term."  And as with any culture, there's a hierarchy.  Sylvia explains to Billy's parents that people who are born deaf are at the top of the ladder, with pluses and minuses for things like not knowing how to sign (a minus) or having deaf parents (a plus).  As someone who is coming to the deaf party later in life, Sylvia does not have the same social status as Billy within the Deaf community.  (Yes, politics exist everywhere.)

The way playwright Nina Raines weaves in the contrasts between Billy and the rest of his family is pure poetry.  Both parents are writers for whom words are everything.  In one particularly emotional scene, Billy tells his family he won't see them any more until they learn how to sign.  He has lived in their world long enough; now, they must try to live in his.  Billy's father refuses, going back to the audio tape he is listening to to learn how to speak Chinese.  The irony is apparently lost on him.

Billy's brother has an undefined mental illness that causes him to hear voices.  Spending time with Billy is one of the few things that soothes him, so the break between Billy and his family exacerbates his illness.  His sister is a wanna be opera singer, again living in a world lost on Billy.

As complex and moving as "Tribes" is on the written page, it could have fallen flat without the right actors.  Florida Rep somehow found a group of actors who seemed born to play these roles.  Britt Michael Gordon as Billy was nothing less than stunning.  I was surprised to learn that he is a performance intern with Florida Rep. Britt spent months being mentored by the deaf community for his performance, and his manner of speaking perfectly captured the language of the deaf people I've known. I was also struck by the emotion behind his signing, with exhalations of breath serving as exclamation points.  I am eager to see him in other Florida Rep productions.

My only regret is that I saw the show on the last day of its run.  Otherwise, I would have gathered all of my theater-going friends and shared this remarkable production with them.  If you have the chance to see "Tribes," run--don't walk--to get tickets.  It's a theater experience you won't soon forget.


Friday, November 28, 2014

Sarasota Chalk Festival -- in Venice

For the past couple of years, my friend Carolyn Hamilton has urged me to check out the Sarasota Chalk Festival.  The timing never seemed to work, though.  Happily, I finally made it this year -- and it was even easier to get there with the Festival's move to Venice.  (Confusingly, it's still called the Sarasota Chalk Festival.  Founder Denise Kowal explained that the enthusiasm of the Venice City Council for this community event was one reason for the move.The name "Sarasota Chalk Festival" was retained, however, because it's a world-recognized event, and they didn't want the Festival to lose its global audience. In addition, the Venice Art Center hosts its own--much smaller--chalk festival each year.) 

Each year the Festival has a theme, and this year it was Extinct and Endangered Species.  The main event at the Festival was an attempt (which was successful) to secure a new Guinness World Record for the largest work of pavement art.  With Venice being the shark tooth capital of the world, the centerpiece of the work was a Megaladon shark with is jaws open just waiting for lunch.  Kurt Wenner, the innovator of 3D pavement art, designed the 18,900 square foot work.  Its medium is tempera, which is semi-permanent.  More than 125 local, national and international artists spent 12 days creating the work on a runway at Venice Municipal Airport.  We were told that communication was the biggest issue in the work's creation but that "art is a universal language."  The results were pretty cool. 

I went to the Festival with my friends Susan and Steve, and the airport was our first stop.  We arrived early on the first day of the Festival and waited in line to climb the viewing tower.   We snapped some shots from the platform and then Susan and I climbed down and, after making a small donation, casually strolled into the shark's mouth for our photo opp.  (Disappointingly, the pictures are only available in hard copy, so I couldn't include our "Jaws" moment here.)  Shown here is my photo of the work.  (The small person on the left hand side of the photo will give you a sense of scale.  The work was 42' wide and 450' long.) 

From there we took a shuttle into downtown Venice where two other venues awaited us.  Because it was the first morning of the Festival, many of the artists creating more traditional 12' x12' works and smaller 3D paintings were just getting started.  It was interesting to watch the artists' different techniques for sketching their designs.  One guy had drawn his work on a piece of paper with tiny little holes in the outline.  The paper was laid on the pavement, and he transferred the design to the pavement by hitting the ground with a sock filled with blue chalk.  (I'm quite sure there's a more artful way of describing this technique, which he attributed to Michalangelo.)  Some artists drew by hand on the pavement.  Still others worked standing with chalk at the end of a long device.  (One artist shared that she had used a curtain rod for her extension.) 

Once the design was sketched, the artists got to work filling them in.  As you can see, it's dirty work, but everyone seemed to be having a great time.  One of the unique things about the Festival is that anyone who registers can create a piece of pavement art.  In fact, there were designated areas for students and kids to create art.  Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to check this out because we were there on a school day.  (Having said that, Ms. Kowal said that 90% of the world's best known chalk artists were participating in the Festival.) 

The final section of the Festival included larger 3D works and works being done on plywood.  (FYI, the plywood works would be characterized as "street art" which, Ms. Kowal explained, tends to be vertical.) These artists had gotten a head start on their work, so there was more actual art to see here.  Of course, it is difficult to appreciate 3D art when you are standing next to it.  Festival organizers have thought of everything, though, and different techniques for viewing 3D art were available. My favorite was a lens that you could swivel around to get a 360 degree view of the work. Definitely more effective than standing on tippy-toes and aiming your camera for a shot. 

There's lots more to say about chalk art in general and the Sarasota Chalk Festival specifically, but I'll save that for next year.   Thanks to Carolyn for getting the Festival on my radar screen! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Musical Chairs

Last year Maestro Raffaele Ponti and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra initiated a "musical chairs" program for young musicians in our community.  Local students were invited to attend a symphony rehearsal and sit with "their" instrument's section.  It's a wonderful way for kids to get an earful of what their instrument sounds like in the hands of a professional musician--and a great way to build the audience of the future.

This year the musical chairs program has been extended to adults in the community.  The best part is that non-musicians--like me--have the chance to participate.  Last month I listened attentively to a talk the Maestro gave entitled "The Psychology of Music: What Instrument are You?"  He asked us to think about the personality traits he attributed to the musicians who play particular instruments. Then he invited us to come to a rehearsal of the CSO for its first concert of the season and to sit with the musicians whose personalities most resemble our own.  Score!

Bright and early last Saturday morning, I nestled in next to the timpani in the back row of the orchestra.  In his talk, the Maestro said that percussionists spend their lives thinking about things they can bang, scrape or pluck and that they tend to be quirky, fun and patient.  While I can't say that's how I would describe myself, I often find myself smiling at the percussionists' contribution to a concert. And so percussion it was for me.  (I note that Raffaele's description does seem to fit timpanist Fred Eckler like a glove.  When I asked how he came to play percussion, he shared that he went to a performance by a sound effects guy at Radio City when he was six years old.  "I fell in love with noise," he said.) 

The first thing that struck me from my seat on the stage was how loud it was when the musicians were warming up.  Once the Maestro was ready to start, concertmaster Stewart Kitts stood and said, "Let's tune."  With that, Raffaele took his position at the podium, greeted the musicians (about half of whom were new to the CSO), and announced that the morning rehearsal would focus on Dvorak's Symphony No. 7.   He raised his arms and they were off.

What a treat it was to be able to really see the way the Maestro interacts with his musicians.  I was struck by the crispness of his arm movements and the multitude of expressions that crossed his face.  At one point he put his fingers to his lips as if shushing a small child.  Other times he almost danced. The orchestra played the piece once through without much in the way of interruption.  Then it was time to mold the performance to fit the Maestro's interpretation of the music.

Maestro Ponti commented that he wanted the opening notes to create a sense of mystery, singing the melody to make his point.  At one juncture he said to the violins, "Take your panic out of this rhythm and let it relax."  When they arrived at the third movement, he announced, "Now for a little Czech dancing."  He asked the winds for "a little more soul" and the strings to "give it a bit of air."  When they reached the rousing finale, a section that Dvorak had labeled "poco animato," Raffaele exhorted the musicians to "take the poco out."  They played fast and furiously and with the passion of people doing something they love.

During the break, Raffaele chatted with us about his approach to rehearsals.  He works first on the "architecture" of the music, then on the tempo and nuances.  He doesn't play it safe, pushing the musicians to play at the tempo he wants in the performance.  There's no time to work up to it really, with rehearsals starting on Saturday for the Sunday evening concert.  He talked about the challenge of convincing the musicians that his interpretation is best.  (A couple of times he asked the musicians to forget about the recordings of the music they had heard.) 

Then it was back to work, with the musical chairs participants now listening from the audience.  There's no doubt I have a greater appreciation of what goes into the performance having had the chance to sit amidst the musicians.   And having identified myself with the percussion section, I will now be rooting for the CSO to perform works that require lots of banging, scraping and plucking.

The CSO intends to offer more opportunities for community members to get up close and personal with the symphony in this way.  If you get an invite, jump on it.  It's an experience you won't soon forget.   

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Touring South Beach's Art Deco District

I never thought I'd be one of those tourists getting off a bus and gawking at the sites around me.  And yet I found myself doing just that last week when I went with a group from the Visual Arts Center to South Beach to tour the Art Deco district.  The event was part of our 2014 Fine Arts Festival entitled "Sensuality Meets Symmetry: Art Nouveau to Art Deco."  (Art Deco being, of course, the "symmetry" part of the equation.)  It was a blast. 

The moment we rolled into town, I knew I wasn't in Kansas any more.  Latin music blared all around us.  Beautiful young people strolled the streets (many wearing swimsuits -- and we're not just talking the women).  Restaurants beckoned from every nook and cranny.  And then there was the gorgeous Art Deco architecture we were there to see.

We started at the Miami Design Preservation League's Art Deco Welcome Center right on Ocean Avenue (and just steps from the beach). Our tour guide, Maureen, gave us an overview before we started the tour proper.  I never knew that Miami Beach had no beach when it was first developed.  It was just mangroves and water.  So all of South Beach is man made (as, Maureen aptly pointed out, are many of the women's bodies!) Or that during WWII, the Army Air Corps rented the hotels on Ocean Avenue to house more than 500,000 cadets who came through the training program there. (The local golf courses were turned into landing strips for the training exercises.) 

The information came at us fast and furiously as we walked around Ocean Avenue.  Our first stop was Beach Patrol Headquarters built by Robert Taylor in 1934.  It's a terrific example of Nautical Art Deco, with porthole style windows, a captain's bridge, piped railings and curved air vents.  Before the MDPL built its headquarters between Ocean Avenue and Beach Patrol Headquarters, it apparently looked like an ocean liner that had run aground.  (I'm not sure why that was an appealing design style!)

The Congress Hotel is still in business and is now comprised of four separate buildings with different architectural styles. The original building is straight up Art Deco, with its ziggurat (step down) details and "frozen fountain" reliefs.  Other Art Deco features include "eyebrows" over its windows and many geometric patterns.

Maureen explained a bit about what it means for a building to have a historical designation.  "The facade is all," she said.  Preservationists realized early on that the Art Deco district needed to thrive economically in order to survive. And so while owners of historic buildings are required to keep the exteriors as they were originally constructed (with repairs made using authentic materials), they have the freedom to do whatever they want in the inside.  As a result, you might stand across the street admiring a perfectly restored Art Deco building and then wander in to find decor like this tropical beauty.

While South Beach is known for its Art Deco, there are other styles of architecture there as well.  This Mediterranean Revival home is the third most photographed residence in the United States (after the White House and Graceland).  But it's not the Moorish influences found in this building that create its fame.  It was here that designer Gianni Versace was gunned down in 1997.  The building was sold in 2013 for $41.5 million and made into a luxury hotel.  There are bouncers at the door to make sure you don't get any further than the entryway without a reservation.  (If you're interested in seeing some photos of the interior, check out this article from the New York Daily News.)

The Miami Design Preservation League guides did a wonderful job sharing a bit of South Beach history with our group.  I feel like I've just scratched the surface, though.  In addition to the Art Deco tour we enjoyed, MDPL offers self-guided Art Deco tours, guided MiMo tours (MiMo being Miami Modern) and even a South Beach for Foodies tour.  And of course they host the annual Art Deco week-end, which will be held next year from January 16-18.  As our favorite former governor of California would say, "I'll be back." 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tragedy Through the Eyes of Children

There's no shortage of novels about WWII.  But trust me when I say that "All the Light You Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr is one WWII story you don't want to miss.  Once again, I listened to this book on audio.  And once again, I longed to have the book in my hands within the equivalent of the opening pages.  Doerr's writing is incredibly beautiful and poignant and captures a time when world events overtook the plans that people had for their lives.

The book begins with an introduction to our two main characters. The year is 1944.   Marie-Laure is a blind 16 year old French girl.  She is is alone in a house in Breton with Allied bombs exploding on the streets outside.  Werner is an 18 year old German boy who has been conscripted into the Reich.  He too is in Breton and is also caught in the bombing.

From there the story weaves back and forth between the two young people's lives over the previous ten years.  We learn that Marie-Laure is a motherless girl who lost her sight when she was six years old.  The bond between Marie-Laure and her father is touching beyond words as he teaches her to navigate the world around her.  He carves a miniature version of their neighborhood in Paris with details like benches and storm drains to help her learn the streets.  He encourages her curiosity and cultivates her independence.

Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans who lives in Children's House in a German village.  Their mother is long dead and their father died working in the mines.  The reader is told that, "As long as the mines have been in existence, they have made orphans."

Through a series of events, Werner learns that he has a talent for repairing radios.  He and Jutta listen to broadcasts from far away places as Jutta dreams of Paris and Werner dreams of the world of science.  His talent becomes known to those in the Nazi high command.  Although Werner is not a Hitler youth, he is faced with a choice of going to work in the mines or going to an elite school to hone his skills in service of his country.

"All the Sight We Cannot See" tells of the difficult choices people are forced to make in a time of war.  There are acts of bravery, large and small.  There are moments of happiness and moments of great sadness.  Doerr's handling of his characters and their relationships has catapulted this book to the top of my list of favorite reads.   Don't miss it.

Julie Lamana also uses a child as her narrator in the young adult book "Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere,"  When we first meet Armani, she is on the cusp of her tenth birthday in the ninth ward of New Orleans.  Armani and her family are also on the cusp of a devastating experience:  Hurricane Katrina.

I loved the way that Lamana let us into Armani's world.  We learn that Armani "always liked the way Saturday mornings smelled" because that was the day her mother baked pies.  And that one of her favorite pastimes is "the business of swinging" on the front porch swing with her grandmother.  It's an innocent world that is about to change forever.

Once Katrina hits, both New Orleans and Armani's life becomes a free-for-all.  The family climbs into the attic to get away from the "wall of churning black water" that bears down on their home when the levee breaches.  From there Armani and her family listen as "the sound of everything we called home [was] washed away."  And that's the easy part. 

Lamana does not shelter Armani and her family from the horrors residents of New Orleans experienced during and after Katrina.  There's more death and destruction than any child should have to see.  Ultimately, though, the book has a sense of hope and optimism that reflects the resilience of New Orleans itself. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Let's Look at Titles with Dorothy Howe Brooks

Jane Spencer with Dorothy Howe Brooks
Not being an artist, I have never faced the task of coming up with a name for a piece of art. I can appreciate the challenge, though, as I often struggle to come up with titles and subheadings when I'm writing a feature for Florida Weekly.  And so I was interested in poet Dorothy Howe Brooks' insights on the art of naming an artwork at the Visual Arts Center last week.  It was loads of fun.

By way of introduction to her subject, Dorothy talked about the difference between titles of poems/other forms of literature and titles of artwork.  In literature, the titles are front and center.  They are cues that give the reader a sense of what is coming up and influence whether you want to forge ahead into the writing.

In art, titles tend to be secondary.  When you walk into a gallery, it is the artwork that beckons.  When a work grabs your attention, you go closer to get a better look.  Then you might look at the wall card to find out who painted the work and what it's called. A good title will enhance your appreciation of the work.  A bad title runs the risk of turning you off.  

O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell"
The most common type of title is fact-based. "This is a painting of xxxx," the artist tells the viewer. This approach establishes a context and can be particularly illuminating for more abstract works. Dorothy used Georgia O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell" as an example.  Most everyone recognizes the nautilus shell, but the fact that the background is a hill often eludes viewers until they learn the name of the work.  The title adds to the viewer's experience as it piques their curiosity as to whether such a hill really exists in nature. 

Patricia Anderson Turner's "Mud cookies" 
We talked a bit about how a factual title can establish the political context of a work. Sue Taylor shared how struck she had been by Patricia Anderson Turner's social commentary pieces, particularly her “Mud Cookies.”   At first glance, you see a colorfully dressed woman holding some disks.  The title was intriguing, however, and led both Sue and me to read Patricia’s explanation of the work.  We then learned that the disks are “cookies” made out of mud that Haitian women feed their children.  This was a very powerful use of a fact-based title. 

Dorothy categorized other ways to title works for us.  A title can focus attention on a particular aspect of a painting.  Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” draws our attention to the glimmering light as the sun rises on the day.  A name like “Harbor at LeHavre” (the original title of the work) is informative, but doesn’t share with the viewer what really struck the artist about the scene.

"Study in Blue and White" by Dana Cooper
Other types of titles might reveal the artist’s inspiration in a common narrative (a myth, perhaps, or a historical event).  Or it might focus the viewer on a craft element of the work, like Dana Cooper's "Study in Blue and White."  A title can name an emotion being expressed by the artist (an approach Dorothy does not favor because it seems to dictate what the viewer should feel).  Finally, an artist might go with “Untitled” as the name of her work, leaving its interpretation wholly to its audience.

Carol Fogelsong's work
 Then the real fun began as Dorothy showed us some works without revealing their titles and asked us to suggest names.  First up was this work by Carol Folgelsong.  We quickly realized how hard it is to develop a good title (particularly, as one artist suggested, for a work you didn’t create). Suggested titles were “Flight’s End,” “Captured,” and “Out of Reach.”  We talked about how the bright colors evoked a happy, whimsical feeling that was contrary to some of the names we’d come up with.  (FYI, Ms. Fogelsong named her painting “Lost and Found.”)

Becky Donatucci's work
We also brainstormed to come up with a name for this painting by Becky Donatucci.  So many different types of titles could work for this one.  A fact-based title could name the cemetery or what is presumably a church.  You could call it something like “Blue Door” (an approach many people favored).  Someone suggested “Before and Beyond,” a title that uses a metaphor.  Another person proposed “Perspective of Shadows,” drawing focus to the craft element of the work.  Ms. Donatucci went with this approach, titling her work “In the Shadow.” 

The session was engaging and thought-provoking and lots of fun.  I surely will pay even closer attention to the titles of artwork in the future as I consider what they add to my experience.  Let the viewing begin!