Thursday, November 26, 2015

Listening in on Asolo Conservatory Voice Training

There's always a bit of a thrill using the Stage Door to enter the world of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. Sure, it's just a canopy with writing on it, but it makes me feel like a theater insider. Besides, sitting in on one of the Conservatory students' showings is always interesting and fun.

The kick-off session for this year was a window into the world of voice training. When we entered the room, the first year students were lying on a large cushioned mat that you'd typically find in a gym.They were in a variety of yoga-like positions and began to work on their "tremor" training once we settled in. It was a bit disorienting to see the students shaking as if possessed (particularly the woman with her legs in the air making--well--orgasmic noises), but it's all part of the process of teaching the students to connect with their breath and their impulse.

Instructor Patricia Delorey explained that Fitzmaurice Voicework provides the basis for this part of the curriculum. (To read more about this program, including the "destructuring" exercises we watched, click here.) Students typically hold each position for 10-15 minutes while working on their breathing and making "breathy fluffy sounds" that help them find the connection to their stage voices. Eventually, Delorey instructed the class to  move into "an approved position of rest." With that, the first year students were done and the second years took over the mat.

The Conservatory students just wrapped their first production of the season -- the hilarious double bill of "The Actor's Nightmare" by Christopher Durang and "The Real Inspector Hound" by Tom Stoppard. Delorey noted that the second year students' curriculum is organized based on production requirements. In this case, the actors all had to speak with British dialects (which they did to perfection). Delorey and the students walked us through their training to learn "RP" or "Received Pronunciation). RP is the Standard English accent in the UK, with the word "received" meaning "as heard."

The students listened to "signature sounds" and learned how to shape their mouths and where to place their tongues to replicate them. Then they turned to Paul Meier's book "Accents and Dialects for Stage and Screen" and his accompanying free website IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive). The website contains audio clips of people around the world speaking English -- and sharing their backgrounds to help students with the context. Playing a Bermudian male?  Click here for a sample. An Indonesian or Australian woman? A Salvadoran male? IDEA has it all. The goal is to sound authentic rather than a stereotype (unless, of course, the role calls for it, like Robin Williams in the wonderful "Mrs. Doubtfire.") 

Transcribing sentences into British dialect is another component of the students' training. (The sample sentence seemed a bit ironic with Thanksgiving feasts looming.) Before working on scenes for class, the students would transcribe their dialogue.

Finally, the students paired up and performed excerpts from the scenes they'd been working on from a Harold Pinter play. It was funny to hear British accents coming from the students as they sat on the mat in work-out clothing. And I loved the fact that a couple of pairs got the giggles halfway through.  It was a reminder that these actors are just kids training in a craft they love. 

This Thanksgiving, as always, I'm thankful to have the chance to take a peek into their process. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Visiting the Sarasota Chalk Festival -- in Venice!

I've been looking forward to this year's Sarasota Chalk Festival since my first Festival experience last year.  The creativity of these artists -- who travel from around the world to participate -- is phenomenal.  And this year I think I did it the "right" way by attending on both Friday and Sunday. 

On Friday, we had the chance to talk with the artists as they were working on their creations.  (While some of the artwork was done, most of it was underway.) Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had was with Gary Palmer, an artist from Venice Beach, California. When I asked how he got into the ephemeral genre of chalk art, he said he once saw a group of Tibetan monks create a sand mandala in honor of a visit by the Dalai Lama. Once the ceremony was completed, the sand was swept away into the ocean. While chalk art doesn't carry the same spiritual connotations as sand mandalas, it does force people to focus on the moment. To Palmer, that's all too rare in our commercially-oriented society.

Kathy Grey takes a sip of her cocktail
Many of the artists were still at work when I returned on Sunday, but they were much less chatty with a deadline looming. It was great fun, though, to see how works had progressed from Friday to Sunday. And I loved the number of interactive opportunities to enjoy the art.  Artist Ilona Fries was doubling as photographers for spectators, lining us up to enjoy her tropical libation. Serious fun.  

Before the Festival began, I had the pleasure of writing a feature about it for Florida Weekly.  It was so much fun to chat with founder Denise Kowal and artist Lori Escalera about the Festival that I thought I'd share the article here.  (Besides, it's an opportunity to include lots of pictures of this year's artwork, although there are way too many to include here!) 

Eat, Drink and Be Merry at the Chalk Festival
By Nanette Crist, Florida Weekly Correspondent

On Nov. 9, the Sarasota Chalk Festival will once again open its gates in Venice. Artists from more than 30 countries, including Bosnia, China and Peru, will create artwork that will wash away with the next rain. 

The Festival adopts a theme each year to spark participants’ creativity. This year’s artists and attendees are invited to “Eat, Drink and Be Merry.”

 Chalking as performance art

The Sarasota Chalk Festival was established by Denise Kowal in 2007 with 22 artists creating pavement art in Burns Square. Only three of the participants had any prior experience chalking. The Festival has grown exponentially since then and now welcomes hundreds of chalk artists, both professional and amateur, to Southwest Florida each November.  

Art lovers have responded in kind. In 2007, the Festival drew an estimated 5,000 people. This number has swelled to over 200,000 in recent years.  

Ms. Kowal attributes the popularity of the Festival to visitors’ fascination with watching works of art come into existence. It’s an accessible form of performance art.

“Everyone can go to a museum and see finished artwork,” Ms. Kowal said. “The Chalk Festival is a unique opportunity to see the process of creation from beginning to end and to understand the artists' excitement and struggles in creating their work.” 

And struggle they do. Chalk artists spend innumerable hours on their hands and knees creating their masterpieces. Inevitably, they find themselves at the end of the day with sore backs, stiff shoulders, scraped knees and covered in chalk dust. 

California artist Lori Escalera is a Festival regular who says the end product far outweighs the aches and pains. Despite two hip replacements, Ms. Escalera continues to participate in chalk festivals around the world. She thrives on sharing both her completed art and her creative process with festivalgoers. Plus, she said, creating in the midst of an artistic community is a nice change of pace from the solitary life of a studio artist.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Pavement art dates back to 16th century Italy, when artists—known as madonnaris--would create temporary artwork on the streets using tile, coal and chalk. The name comes from the artists’ frequent depictions of the Madonna and other religious figures.

The most frequent question posed to current day madonnaris is why create artwork with such a short lifespan. (A rainstorm destroyed last year’s pavement art before the Festival was even over.) To these artists, the ephemeral nature of their work is an important aspect of the genre.

“You can’t think about chalk art in conventional visual art terms,” Ms. Escalera said. “It’s a process, an experiential way to enjoy art. Going to a chalk festival is more like an outing to the theater or a ballet than a visit to a museum. You can only recreate what you’ve seen in your memory.”

World record attempt

While the Festival will be chock-full of amazing creations, the anamorphic—or 3D illusion—pavement paintings may well be the most awe inspiring. In 1984, Kurt Wenner invented this artistic genre, which builds on the Old Masters’ use of perspective to create the illusion that figures are rising from or falling into the ground. 

Dorrit, Janice and John
At last year’s Festival, artists used Mr. Wenner’s design to paint a 3D illusion megalodon shark measuring more than 22,000 square feet. Festivalgoers climbed a viewing tower from which they could peer down into the shark’s gaping mouth. The work secured a Guinness World Record title as the world’s largest work of anamorphic pavement art. (The title has since been lost to a 28,000+ square foot pavement painting in Qingdao, China.)

Mr. Wenner will be onsite this year to instruct more than 90 artists in the creation of his anamorphic “Feast of the Gods.” Bringing the feast to life—from gridding to the last brushstroke--will take a minimum of eight full days. When the work has been completed, the hope is that Venice will once again be the home of the world’s largest 3D illusion painting.  

More than 30 large scale 3D illusion works will be created in addition to the “Feast of the Gods.” Art lovers are invited to watch the installations take shape from Nov. 9-12. All 3D works will be completed by Nov. 13 when the Festival fully opens. The megalodon shark, which was created using house paint rather than chalk, will be on display as well.    

Seniors Going Vertical

Janice and John
In 2011, the Festival expanded to include vertical works of art, known as “street art” in the vernacular. The inclusion of street art seemed both a natural extension of the Festival and the perfect accommodation for chalk artists who no longer can spend the time on their hands and knees required to create large scale pavement art. While artists chalked their art on buildings in earlier festivals, plywood panels now serve as their canvases.

This year’s Festival will introduce the “Seniors Going Vertical” program. A large cube will be constructed from four 8’x20’ plywood walls just waiting to be covered with chalk art, graffiti, spray painted stencils and splatter paintings. Materials and safety gear, including protective glasses and smocks, will be available to enable spur-of-the-moment participation.

When asked who qualifies as a “senior,” Ms. Kowal said the concept was an event for people aged 60 and higher. Attendees will determine their own eligibility.

Creating a memorable cultural experience

The economic impact of the Festival is significant. Extrapolating from a 2010 impact study, the Festival is expected to bring $6-$10 million of revenue into Southwest Florida.

While Ms. Kowal is delighted with these results, she considers the economic benefits “icing on the cake” (pun intended). “The main purpose of the Festival,” Ms. Kowal said, “Is to bring people together to share an amazing cultural experience they will talk about for years to come.” 

With the Festival line-up Ms. Kowal and her army of volunteers have put together, achieving this goal seems inevitable.  Now we just cross our fingers for no rain.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Inside Asolo Rep: West Side Story

I have somehow made it well into my adult life without having seen "West Side Story." Since I don't actually live under a rock, I of course have heard a lot of the music (and am consistently moved by the beauty of "Somewhere.") And I saw "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" when I lived in New York, which included the wonderful "West Side Story Suite" of dances. But I've never seen an entire performance from start to finish. That's all about to change when Asolo Repertory Theatre kicks off its 2015-2016 season.

I was already looking forward to filling this gap in my cultural resume when an email hit my inbox about an "Inside Asolo Rep" panel discussion with director/choreographer Joey McKneely and set designer Lee Savage. I set my car on auto-pilot and headed up to Sarasota. It was a real treat.

Director/choreographer Joey McKneely
Joey McKneely brings a 25 year history with "West Side Story" to the production. He was first introduced to Jerome Robbins as a 19 year old dancer when he was cast in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."  He shared that he had no idea who Robbins was; he was just happy to dance. McKneely discovered that his body was able to do what Robbins wanted it to do. (I love the way he talked about "his body" as if it were a separate being.) As a result, he was featured in a number of the dances, including the Suite. The experience, he said, was about "living inside the choreography," and it is this all-encompassing feeling that he hopes to instill in his cast. 

McKneely's transition from dancer to choreographer was met with accolades. He received Tony nominations for his first two shows--"Smokey Joe's CafĂ©" and "The Life." But it's "West Side Story" that serves as the signature piece of his career. 

In 2000, McKneely was invited to reproduce Robbins' choreography for a production of "West Side Story" at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. As he said in an interview with, "All of a sudden it wasn't just the dance steps. I had to understand the entire script...There was now all of Mr. Laurents’ rich character history and emotional plot to inform the choreography. Diving into each scene made me understand where the dances came from, and vice versa."  Since then, McKneely has directed productions of the play around the world, including Laurent's 2009 revival in New York. (To read the entire interview, click here.)

Set designer Lee Savage
Listening to Lee Savage's approach to set design was equally fascinating. Savage's goal was to "try and forget what I've seen, heard and read about the play and bring something current to the production." He talked about the importance of understanding the needs of the choreography before beginning to think about the set. (Interestingly, McKneely said he felt the production could be done in a black box.)

The two men had an easy conversation led by dramaturg Lauryn Sasso. 
To McKneely, the streets of New York are a character in the show. "The city is the witness, judge, jury and survivor," he said. "It's what they're fighting over." Both men envisioned a set that was unique, not just bricks and a couple of fire escapes.

Savage built on "the conflict and tension in the show, the sense of pending disaster." It's a realistic space, but tilted five degrees to add a feeling of unease. 

Costume design is also an integral element of the production. McKneely didn't want a 1957 look, believing that poodle skirts and t-shirts with cigarettes in a rolled shirt sleeve would date a show whose themes of racism and conflict over the status quo are relevant today. The Jets will wear black and white and gray which, in part, is a reference to the way we see the past. The Sharks' clothing will include pops of reds and blues as they introduce color into this world in two ways.

The young cast members -- aged 16 to 26 -- have told McKneely they can't feel the hate imbedded in the play. While encouraging in a broader sense, McKneely has urged them to give themselves over to the characters in order to tell the important lessons of "West Side Story."

Hearing McKneely's and Savage's perspectives has made me even more eager to see "West Side Story." The show runs from November 13-December 27.  Click here to get tickets and to read about the rest of Asolo Rep's season, which continues to explore the theme of the American Character. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Visiting Southeastern Guide Dogs, Part 2

Talulah taking a break from her training
Southeastern Guide Dogs "employs the latest in canine development and behavior research to create and nurture partnerships between visually impaired individuals and extraordinary guide dogs." During our visit, we had the chance to meet two dogs -- Talulah, a 12-week old puppy in training, and Champy, a graduate ready to team up with a visually impaired student. 

Because the facility breeds its own dogs, the puppies start their training early. At two days old--well before they can see or hear--the tiny pups are already being socialized. They begin their formal education when they are four weeks old, learning different textures and being exposed to sounds like thunder and vacuum cleaners and blow dryers. 

At six weeks, puppies become part of the "Hug a Puppy" program. Visitors get the chance to play with the dogs in a supervised setting. What seems like fun is really an opportunity for the dogs to be exposed to new people who smell and sound and feel different from their trainers. I would love to go back and "help out" by participating in this program!

Talulah figuring out a skateboard
Around the ten week mark, the dogs are sent home with a puppy trainer. In order to partner with a visually impaired person, the dogs have to know what's out there in the world. Being a puppy trainer sounds like fun, but it's also a big responsibility. There's a 200 page manual to help trainers work with their dogs on the skills they need to develop. Trainers and their dogs meet twice a month with other teams and folks from Southeastern Guide Dogs to give progress reports and get support. (There are 29 different puppy training areas across the Southeastern United States, so it's not necessary to live in Southwestern Florida to participate.)  At 16 weeks, the puppies are given a blue guide dog vest, and trainers start taking their dogs with them to the grocery store and doctor and football games. The idea is to expose the puppy to any experience it might have with its owner. 

Despite what's bound to be a high level of attachment, the puppies are brought back to Palmetto at 16 months and "graduate" into the next level of the program. (They analogize the emotions a raiser feels to when you drop off your child at college.)  The dogs go through extensive medical testing and behavioral assessments.  Daily report cards are completed with notations about activity levels and obedience.  It's all part of the process of making sure that the dogs are ready to be matched with a student and that the partnership will be a good one. Home visits are conducted with students as well to look at factors like walking pace and strength. Again, the goal is to gather as much information as possible to put together a compatible match between dog and owner. 

Champy is ready to partner with a student
Students arrive at the campus more or less monthly for their own training. They settle into the dorms for 26 days during which they live and work with their guide dogs. After a couple of days of getting to know their new best friends, the students head out to Freedom Walk with their dogs (and, of course, handlers to help every step of the way). Trust is established as the students work up from a straight path to a curving path to obstacles like bridges and hoses snaked across the road. They walk in areas with 17 different textures, from gravel to sand to concrete to grass. 

Week two of the training finds the teams in Bradenton for an urban walk.  In week three, each student and dog cross a street in Tampa with eight lanes of traffic without any assistance from the handler. Accomplishing this daunting task is a prerequisite to going home.

Lifetime follow-up is provided for every student (including replacement dogs, as necessary).  I neglected to mention that all of these services are provided to the students at no charge. Southeastern Guide Dogs operates exclusively through private donations. 

Needless to say, I was highly impressed with Southeastern Guide Dogs' facility and programs. Information about tours, puppy hugging visits and speakers is available on their website.  (Fees go towards buying the 44,000 pounds of dog food consumed each year.)  A big thanks to Mary Frances Adair for organizing our eye-opening visit to this incredible facility.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Visiting Southeastern Guide Dogs, Part 1

All of us have seen a guide dog leading a blind person out in the world. But have you ever thought about what's involved in training these dogs or preparing their owners to give up their white canes? My visit to Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto was an eye-opening experience. 

An incredible amount of information was crammed into our 90 minute tour.  Here are some of the highlights:
--The school was founded in 1982 by a husband and wife team. It is one of ten guide dog training facilities in the country. The 35 acre campus in Palmetto includes kennels, training facilities, a veterinarian hospital and dorms for the students.
--Three breeds of dog are trained: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and goldadors (a blend of Labrador and golden).  The dogs are bred at the school.  (When not "working," the breeder dogs live with a volunteer family.) The average litter size is seven puppies; the largest has been 14.  Approximately 250 puppies are born into the program annually.  Naming rights for a puppy can be yours for a $5,000 donation. 
--Each year the school graduates approximately 100 teams of dogs and students. The facility is in expansion mode and will soon up that number to 120 teams per year.  Over the life of the school, more than 2,800 dogs and students have been paired. 
--The cost of a guide dog is $60,000. This includes both training and lifetime medical care. The school's annual budget is approximately $25 million. 
--The Paws for Independence program is the traditional guide dog program. The school also has a Paws for Patriots program that matches dogs with veterans who have brain injuries or suffer from PTSD.  The school's Canine Connections program matches dogs with kids age 10-17 who are blind or are losing their sight. The primary purpose of this program is to teach the child how to care for a pet. 
--The school has seen an explosion of demand for dogs working with vets. Some dogs are matched with individual veterans; others work in a facility. Dogs have a finely tuned sense of smell due to the huge number of receptors in their noses and throats (300 million to a human's 5 million). This is why dogs can sniff out not only drugs or bombs but some cancers, anxiety and oncoming diabetic attacks. When at a veterans' facility, dogs often seek out individuals who are suffering from stress, thus alerting the staff that a patient might need some extra attention.
--The school likes to say that its dogs choose their own career paths. Approximately 40% of the dogs graduate and become guide dogs. Another 20% go into one of the school's other programs.  Some dogs undergo a "career change" and become police dogs. Others go into the breeding program or become ambassadors.  A small group of dogs decide to be regular pets.
--The career span of a guide dog is eight-nine years.  

While this information is interesting, it doesn't begin to capture the experience of being on campus and seeing the dogs themselves.  Stay tuned for a post about what's involved in the training program, including our own visit with the ridiculously cute 12-week old Talulah. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Belle of Amherst with Lisa Egan Woods

Each fall, I eagerly await the new season from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. Although I might not always love the play selection, the caliber of performance by the second year students is uniformly high. (There's a reason the school is one of the top ten acting programs in the country.)  The only problem is that I get attached to the students and miss them as they move on in their journey.  Going to performances in the Late Night Series is one way to counteract my separation anxiety.

Lisa Egan Woods as Emily Dickinson
As I understand it, the Late Night Series consists of performances that third year students have put together on their own.  The first installment in this year's series was a one-night only performance by Lisa Egan Woods of "The Belle of Amherst," a play about Emily Dickinson. It was wonderful. 

You don't have to be a poetry buff to know Emily Dickinson's name and, quite likely, some of her work. She is, after all, one of America's most significant poets. The story of her life yielded some surprises, though. 

Dickinson grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and lived her adult life in seclusion in her family home. She spent a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a school whose evangelical fervor did not suit her. Students were classified as professed Christians, those with hope, and those without hope. Dickinson found herself in the last category as she struggled with her faith. (As a Mount Holyoke alum, I found this history of the school particularly interesting. When I attended the women's college nearly 140 years later, it was no longer religious in nature. Nonetheless, the lights still went on and boys were ushered out when parties were declared over at 1 a.m.)

I loved the way poems were interspersed throughout the play. I was surprised to learn that only seven of Dickinson's nearly 1800 poems were published during her lifetime and that those poems had been heavily edited.  (A complete collection of her work was not published until 1955, almost 70 years after her death.)

Only known picture of Dickinson
The play includes a meeting between Dickinson and Higginson, a publisher with whom she had had a long correspondence. Dickinson believed that Higginson had come to visit for the purpose of deciding which of her poems to include in a book. Instead, he made it clear that he found her poetry--with its short lines, slant rhyme and seemingly random capitalization and punctuation--unworthy of publication. Her dream shattered, she wrote the poem "I'm Nobody." The poem packed an emotional wallop when put into the context of an isolated woman whose desire to communicate with the world through her poetry has been crushed. 

I'm Nobody!  Who are You?
by Emily Dickinson

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us - don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

(Side note: Higginson also declined to publish Walt Whitman.)

Wearing Dickinson's trademark muted colors, Woods truly inhabited the role of the poet. The play contained humor and sorrow and resignation, and in each instance Woods struck the right tone.  (In fact, in a brief conversation with her after the show, I was surprised by the differences between her "Dickinson" voice and her own speaking voice.)  It was a performance of which Woods and her fellow students who helped with direction, lighting, set design and direction should be proud.

The Asolo Conservatory season is kicking off soon with two absurdist shows in one -- "The Actor's Nightmare" by Christopher Durang and "The Real Inspector Hound" by Tom Stoppard.  Tickets for the four show season are only $100, one of the best deals around.  I can't wait. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Lowbrow and Highbrow Family Fun

I spent the last week in September at my sister's taking care of Drew, my 13 year old nephew, and Jakie, my four year old nephew dog, while Suzanne and Tim were off on a business boondoggle in St. Tropez.  It was a surprisingly easy and fun week, but for Drew's excruciatingly long flag football game and Jakie's gag-inducing incident. 

I headed back to my sister's last week-end for a responsibility-free and fun-filled couple of days.  On Friday night we headed to the Cine-bowl and Grille in Delray Beach.  (It always pays to keep an eye on those Groupon offerings -- Suzanne scored an hour of bowling for four with shoe rental, a large pizza and a pitcher of beer for $40.)  

Bowler babes
I'll preface this by saying that I am not known in my family as an athlete (and for good reason). Nonetheless, I had visions of breaking 100 on my first bowling outing in many years.  My dreams were dashed when my first four balls ended up in the gutter about halfway down the lane.  Drew kindly suggested that we might put the kiddie bumpers up when it was my turn.  I began eyeing the slide-looking devices the little children in the next lane were using to get their balls going in a straight--if painfully slow--path to the pins.  I lowered my hopes to achieving a double digit score.  I gave up taking a few steps before releasing my ball, sacrificing speed in hopes of a bit more precision.  Despite my absolute and total lack of success, it was great fun with music blaring and videos streaming and copious amounts of unhealthy food being consumed. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Suzanne got on an incredible hot streak in the second game.  She rolled two strikes in a row, then a spare, and had scored 121 with a frame or two to go before our time ran out. The boys had headed to the arcade and missed her performance, but Tim and I watched in awe.  Perhaps there's still time for her to join a senior league and get a shirt with her name embroidered across the pocket.

Saturday night found us at the Broward Center for Performing Arts for a performance of "Once."  The show won eight Tony Awards in 2012, including Best Musical, so I was happy to be able to tag along with Suzanne and Tim for the performance.

Before the show began, audience members were invited onstage to check out the set (which was an old mirrored bar) and buy a drink.  Needless to say, I was all over that.  As a bonus, some of the actors came onstage, instruments in hand, and began to play just as I was climbing the steps.  There were fiddlers and a mandolin player, a pianist and an accordionist.  One guy played the tambourine with his foot while strumming a guitar.  The music made me think of gypsies, and the crowd really got into it.  The actors continued playing as the audience members were ushered to their seats, with the music flowing seamlessly into the first song of the show.  Seriously fun.

The story of the play is nothing remarkable -- a disheartened Irish musician whose songs celebrate his lost love meets a woman who encourages and inspires. But I loved the music, and Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal were wonderful in their roles as "Guy" and "Girl."  The choreography was simple, yet beautiful. I especially liked the way the actors were situated so the audience could see their reflections in the various mirrors.  And in a flashback to my work with students learning English as a second language, I laughed as the Czech immigrants worked on their English by watching--and arguing about--their favorite soap opera.  All in all, a highly enjoyable way to spend the evening.