Saturday, February 6, 2016

Looking at Art with Jeffrey T. Larson

One of the perks of chairing the National Art Exhibition at the Visual Arts Center is having the opportunity to get up close and personal with the juror for the show. And while it's always fun to watch the juror as he goes through the judging process, this year's experience with Jeffrey T. Larson was, in a word, fabulous. 

David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps"
Jeff studied at Atelier Lack, a program that "focuses primarily on teaching fine draftsmanship and painting skills leading to the creation of well constructed artwork."  What's cool is that the instructional lineage of the school can be traced back to the Neo-Classical artist Jacques-Louis David who painted, among other famous works, "Napoleon Crossing the Alps."  

Jeffrey Larson's "Electrolux"
So it comes as no surprise that Jeff is a representational artist focused on the craft of painting (although you might not put his "Electrolux" up against David's "Death of Marat" and immediately see the connection.)  As an aside, when asked about the painting, Jeff shared that his mother-in-law had told him and his wife Heidi that if they ever came across an Electrolux, they should snap it up. They found one at a garage sale and did as instructed. Although it didn't work well as a vacuum cleaner, Jeff found the streamlined design of the machine an interesting subject.  

Jeff's first introduction to the 134 works he had chosen for this year's show (from a field of 633) came when he and Heidi walked into a gallery overflowing with artwork. Paintings hung in a haphazard fashion on the walls; some were on the floor leaning. Despite the chaos, a smile broke out across his face as he saw the artwork he'd previously viewed in 3x3 thumbnail photos online.  He was happy with his selections. "Every work," he said, "Has something, a little spark." 

Anna Bain "Self-Portrait in the Studio"
The hardcore judging took place the next morning, which Jeff spent studying the works and eliminating. Eventually, the only paintings hanging were those he was considering for a prize. Co-chair Ingrid Carroll's and my job was to be on hand to answer basic questions -- more or less to be flies on the wall as the judge went about his business. But Jeff was downright voluble as he shared his thoughts with us about different works. 

He turned Anna Bain's "Self-Portrait in the Studio" upside down to look at the composition. (I'd seen this trick before in a critique session, but it's always striking. It was funny when someone came into the gallery and said, "Well, I guess that work's out of the running."  Au contraire.) He loved the work's balance and the way all lines led to the artist's face. The work received Second Prize in the show.

Dominic Avant "Pizzicatto"

He talked about his characterization of Dominic Avant's "Pizzicatto" as a genre piece rather than a portrait. Knowing that Dominic's 14-year old son had sat for this painting, I was curious about the difference. In a portrait, he said, your focus is on the individual. Who are they? What are they thinking? In a genre work, the focus is on the setting, the activity. The motion of the cellist's hand as he plucks the strings draws the viewer's eye rather than his face. The work received Third Prize in the show.

Bill Farnsworth "On the Line"

Bill Farnsworth's "On the Line," which won Best of Show, captured Jeff's attention because of the way the artist created different points in the painting that draw the viewer's eye in.  Some paintings, though skillful, lead your eye off the canvas and onto the next work.  Farnsworth's dollops of light and the sense of movement from the waves force the viewer's eye to keep circling around and considering the work. It's a manipulative artistic technique that an uneducated viewer (like me) might not even realize is happening. 

James Wolford's "Friendship House"
It was interesting to hear Jeff comment that he could tell certain works had been painted from a photograph.  How did he know, you might ask (as I did).  Jeff pointed out that when the human eye is looking at, say, a house, you focus on one point and the hard edges soften. (He referred to them as "lost edges.")  In James Wolford's "Friendship House," the rooflines are uniformly distinct, a sign the artist painted from a picture (after, Jeff was certain, many studies of the work).  Photo-realistic paintings are neither good nor bad, just a technique that the viewer might appreciate. (While "Friendship House" did not win a prize, Wolford's "USS Constitution" garnered an Excellence Award.)

The National Art Exhibition will be on display at the Visual Arts Center through March 12. If you're in the area, it's a show worth seeking out -- even if you don't have the benefit of Jeff Larson's commentary along the way. And for a bit more insight into the show, check out Nancy Stetson's article in Florida Weekly: A Good Year for Art.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Three Stages of Theater

Last week was a great theater week. I had the opportunity to see three plays at different stages of the creative process. I'd be hard-pressed to say which experience was my favorite. 

I am loving my "Behind the Scenes" class at Florida Studio Theater. Our latest session found us in the rehearsal studio with Claire Warden and Gil Brady as they went through one of their scenes in "Outside Mullingar" for the very first time.  Director Kate Alexander explained that the morning would be about laying in the basic framework and that an additional two-three hours would be spent on the scene before opening night. 

There were two things that struck me when sitting in this rehearsal. The first was the collaborative nature of figuring out the logistics. The scene is set in Claire/Rosemary's kitchen, and Gil/Anthony has to enter from the rainy outdoors. Anthony was scouring the ground with a metal detector when Rosemary spotted him.  For the day, the metal detector was a headset and a crutch, which Claire laughingly called "brilliant."

Gil with his "metal detector"
The actors and director spent a fair amount of time working out how Anthony would enter the house and negotiate getting off his coat, hat and boots while dealing with the metal detector. "Are you giving me your coat as well?" Rosemary asked.  "I'm not wearing a coat," Gil replied. "Well, you'd better be because you give it to me." After the first run-through, Gil jokingly declared, "We're not going to do better than that. Why do we need to go back?"  (Gil seems to always have a self-deprecating humorous remark at the ready. About a minute into the rehearsal, he had commented, "I think it's going really well.  Who else got choked up?) 

I was taken by their attention to detail as they worked through the scene. The flimsy towel originally planned to be given to Anthony to dry off his head was swapped out for one more sturdy. Claire questioned whether the sink would be "practical" (i.e., working) and whether the Guinness would be room temperature or if she would grab it from a refrigerator (which wasn't blocked out on the set).

The second thing I was struck by was Claire and Gil's easy rapport. When Gil asked if she could give him a chair to take off his shoes, Claire said, "Always, babe." It was hard to believe the pair had only met the previous week. When I asked Claire about it, she said they had an instant connection. It was like, "Okay. We're BFFs now." They are absolutely adorable, both individually and together. (And, in case you can't tell, I've become totally invested in this show, which opens on February 3rd.)   

Carolyn Michel
Then there was Carolyn Michel's "Women I Have Loved."  This show was part of the 2016 SaraSolo Festival, a grouping of 16 different performances celebrating the solo performer. Michel put her show together specifically for the Festival. It was a pastiche of five characters she's portrayed in one act shows, including Ann Landers, Dorothy Parker and an 80 year old Holocaust survivor. And it was wonderful.

Before a sold-out house, Michel transformed herself from one character to the next, changing clothes and wigs as she sang a tune to segue to the next scene. I don't think I would've known it was the same actress if I hadn't seen the changes myself. Accents, of course, made a huge difference, but so did body language and the way the character moved.

Ann Landers solicited input from the audience (with my favorite question being the age-old controversy of the "right" way for toilet paper to be put on the roller. Landers received 15,000 pieces of mail in response to this column.)  Dorothy Parker wisecracked her way through her portion of the show as she tossed off familiar quips like, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses."  But it was the stories of fictional characters that most grabbed me. You could have heard a pin drop as Rose recalled losing her family during the Holocaust. Bev shared having to be hospitalized when striving to be the perfect mother and wife became too much. Bev's mother-in-law (another Rose) had the audience singing along to "Sunrise, Sunset."

The show opened and closed the same night, so Michel didn't have the benefit of a preview period to perfect her act.  She didn't need it.

Last up was "Butler" at Florida Studio Theatre, a show that has been onstage since December. The production deals with a little known historic incident in which Union General Benjamin Butler discovers that three run-away slaves are seeking sanctuary in his fort. Even during the Civil War, the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect, a law that required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. (The Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until 1863.)

Eric Hoffman was terrific as General Butler, and it was a pleasure to see Shane Taylor return to FST's stage as an errant slave. (Taylor appeared in last year's wonderful production of "Fly.") The story was engaging, with humor throughout despite the seriousness of the topic. And the "convoluted" way Butler came to interpret the law made this lawyer proud.

"Butler" runs at Florida Studio Theatre through March 5.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Exploring Everglades City

When I mentioned to people that I was meeting some friends for an overnight in Everglades City, the most common response was a bemused "Why?"  It's not exactly a locale known for arts and culture (Clyde Butcher's amazing photographs aside). But Pam had a hankering to do some canoeing there before she and her husband move to South Carolina. Pat and I were happy to go along for the ride.

We started off our adventure at The Museum of the Everglades, which is chock-full of interesting information. Everglades City was founded as a company town by the Collier Company. Barron Gift Collier (his real name) had amassed a fortune in the advertising business. When he came to Southwest Florida, he acquired more than a million acres of property. In exchange for having a county named in his honor, Collier agreed to complete the portion of Tamiami Trail that crossed the Everglades. The difficulty of the project was likened to that of building the Panama Canal.

Pam and Pat on Sandfly Island
Everglades City was envisioned as a utopian community. It had its own hospital, library and bank (complete with Collier Company scrip that could be used at local stores.) With a population greater than that of Naples, Everglades City served as the county seat until the 1950s.

Collier was a fascinating character. In addition to his role in completing the Tamiami Trail (a project that eventually bankrupted him), he also was influential in persuading the U.S. government to join Interpol and served as the public safety commissioner of New York. In a time when the streets of New York City were suddenly populated with horse-drawn carriages, street cars and automobiles, injuries from jaywalking were a serious problem. Collier's anti-jaywalking campaign reduced the number of accidents by 50% in the first 90 days. (As a veteran NYC jaywalker, I can appreciate this issue. While I never had a problem when I lived there, the ever-increasing bike traffic in the City now makes stepping off the sidewalk a dangerous proposition.)

Pat with Ted Smallwood
Then we were off to the Historic Smallwood Store. This vintage trading post is essentially filled with all the junk that Smallwood was never able to get rid of. (This isn't just my perception. Apparently, 90% of the stuff in the store dates back to when it closed in 1982.) Smallwood's grandson recited some facts about his grandfather in a way that made me feel like it was an imposition for him to take our $5 to come into the "museum." To me, the store wasn't worth the price of admission. I did, however, enjoy getting Pat to pose with a kind of creepy wax figure of Grandpa Smallwood.

We woke Saturday morning to a glorious day with sun and no wind. Our ranger-led canoe trip was on!

Although I'm comfortable in a kayak, I was nervous about canoeing. When Pam signed up for the trip, the ranger drilled her about our level of experience and cautioned her that we had to be able to "self-save" if we tipped over. Pam sent us "how to canoe" videos as homework for the outing. And then I started thinking about gators.....

Pam on the water
Of course, it turned out to be no problem at all (unless you count Pam's and my total inability to paddle in a straight line.) Chokoloskee Bay is quite shallow, so we have no idea what the whole "self-save" fuss was about.

Once we got settled in, it was fun to be on the water. The highlight was two dolphins cavorting near the mangroves. It seemed out of context for Flipper to join us instead of a ravenous alligator, but that was just fine.

Our lunch stop on Sandfly Island was combined with a walk for those willing to brave the mosquitos and no-see-ums (which were seriously irritating). The island is actually a "shell mound" built by the Calusa Indians. It's a pretty amazing engineering feat for 2,000 years ago. I also learned that hearts of palm come from cabbage palm trees. 

It was another wonderful outing with wonderful friends. We're already plotting our get-away for next year. And while a different venue is in order, I'd actually like to get back to the Everglades sometime. There's a 15 mile bike loop in Shark Valley that sounds like fun. And I've always been intrigued by the idea of Clyde Butcher's swamp walks.  All in due time. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Behind the Scenes at FST: Outside Mullingar, Part 2

I started my second session of Behind the Scenes with my nose up to the window like a kid on the outside of a candy store. Although I had arrived on time for the class, the director inexplicably started the read-through well before the appointed time. Those students who had arrived early were sitting comfortably in their seats listening to the actors while I (and many other students) stood outside the glass door straining to hear.  I'm not sure who was more aggravated -- me after driving an hour to get to the class or the woman who'd been sitting outside in her car checking emails until class time.

Once the actors finished the first scene, the director let the rest of us into the rehearsal studio.  Luckily, I'd done my homework and read the script in advance, so I had no problem picking up the storyline. It didn't take long for my irritation to transform into pleasure. 

Claire Warden and Gil Brady
It was hard to believe these actors had only met that morning and were doing their first read-through together. The reading was as polished as the readings at new play festivals that have had the benefit of hours of rehearsal time.  Most of the actors were still "on book" (reading from the script) at least part of the time.  (We had learned last week that a request to come into rehearsals off book requires an additional week of pay for the actors. Given the economics of theater, this rarely happens.)

I don't know why I was surprised the actors read their lines using a dialect. They are professionals, after all, and the play is set in Ireland.  None had adopted a heavy accent that made their words incomprehensible. Instead, they used pleasant brogues that transported me to their part of the world. 

 Gil Brady and George Crowley
It was interesting to watch the actors who were not characters in the scene being read.  I was most taken with the way George Crowley, who plays Tony, looked off into space. You could tell, though, that he was fully engaged.  In fact, he was in tears after the final scene, and I'm not talking just a sniffle.  It was the type of reaction that would have become a full-out bawl in the privacy of his own home. 

I'm looking forward to following the play's development as it marches towards its opening night on February 3. Next up is a class that will find us doing some script analysis, hearing from the theater's Literary Manager, getting a design update and viewing some rehearsal.  I can't wait. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Behind the Scenes at Florida Studio Theatre: Outside Mullingar, Part 1

Florida Studio Theatre puts on four main stage productions each season. Its Behind the Scenes program allows students to follow a play from the first read-through by the actors through dress rehearsal, with a concept and context session at the beginning and a panel discussion with the actors and stage manager at the end. How could I resist? All I needed was time in my schedule and plenty of gas. (Guess which one was harder to come by.) 

I registered for the class for "Outside Mullingar" by John Patrick Shanley. The first session was last week, and I love it already. The class is facilitated by Jason Cannon and Christine Hopkins. Jason is an actor on FST's artistic staff. (FST followers might remember him from last year's "Dancing Lessons.") Christine is FST's director of education. 

Facilitators Jason Cannon and Christine Hopkins
The excitement in the room was palpable as we settled into our seats in the theater. With the set for "Butler" as their backdrop, Jason and Christine gave an intro to the program (an explanation unnecessary for the many self-proclaimed Behind the Scenes addicts in the class).

Jason posited that, "As you learn more about something, it becomes less magical, but you appreciate it more." The objective of the program is to help the audience develop "more informed eyes and ears," he continued. As the audience becomes more discerning, the theater has to perform to a higher level. FST clearly welcomes this challenge.    

We covered a lot of ground and were joined at different points by director Kate Alexander and production manager Bruce Price. Here are some of the highlights:

 --FST has an interesting approach to casting its shows. Its rule of thumb is for 25% of the cast of each show to be returning FST actors. FST likes its actors to be comfortable with the theater's culture and audiences and encourages the veteran actors to mentor the newbies. FST always holds local auditions, but frequently casts out of New York.

--The literary team reads approximately 500 plays each year. The team maintains a list of 10-20 hot plays as possible productions. Sometimes a show is put in a reading circle or new play festival before a decision is made about a full-scale production. Even if a play is fast-tracked, it takes 18-24 months to get from discovery to opening night.

--Royalties for a play are based on a number of factors, including size of the house, ticket prices and profit/non-profit status. 

--"Outside Mullingar" was commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club in New York and premiered in 2014. John Patrick Shanley, perhaps best known as the author of "Doubt," is of Irish heritage and took the occasion of his 60th birthday to write a show about the family farm. The play tells the story of two neighboring families in a town outside Mullingar, Ireland and received Tony Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award nominations for Best Play (or the equivalent thereof).

Director Kate Alexander
--Kate Alexander shared how she will encourage her actors to approach the play when they arrive next week. Irish playwrights, she said, "embrace the cult of death." They don't tiptoe around the subject or take it too seriously. Instead, their approach is more, "We're going to die soon.  Let's have a pint." It's a very different tack than that of David Mamet or Edward Albee on the subject.

--Bruce Price talked about some of the challenges, both financial and technical, of putting on the show. As soon as he read the script and saw that it called for rain (the play is set in Ireland, after all), dollar signs started dancing through his head. While the details aren't totally pinned down, he expects there will be combination of real water and water images projected on a screen. The rigging for rain involves running a garden hose into the roof of the house into a PVC pipe and a trough into which the fallen rain will flow.

Production manager Bruce Price
--Scenic designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay had originally proposed a turntable set for the production. Bruce sent them back to the drawing board due to concerns about the turntable malfunctioning, a particular issue with floors like those of FST's historic Gompertz Theatre that aren't totally level. The revised design calls for different components of the set to be on rolling units.

--Sketches of the set design were passed around so we could get a sense of what the characters' homes will look like. The detail was truly amazing, down to movable panels for the roof so that the lines of the two homes can differ.

By the time the class was over, my head was buzzing with all the information that had been shared. I left FST eagerly anticipating the next class when we will sit in on the actors' first read-through of the play. I didn't even mind getting a homework assignment -- reading the script of "Outside Mullingar."  Stay tuned! 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Gaslighted in Gulfport

You may recall the movie "Gaslight" starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband tries to drive her crazy. (And I mean literally mad, not the type of crazy found in normal relationships.)  While the movie is a classic, I've never felt any sympathy for Bergman's character -- until now. 

The day started off innocently enough.  The Isles Yacht Club biking group had organized an overnight outing in Gulfport.  Twenty-four bikers arrived at the Historic Peninsula Inn & Spa and headed out for a 16+ mile ride before lunch.  The ride itself was unremarkable except for the "Pinellas Hills."  As I was riding along the wide paved trail, a concrete structure loomed up ahead.  Florida, of course, is a state whose flatness rivals that of my home state of Kansas.  My obvious assumption was that it must be a drawbridge lifted to allow boats to pass under.  But no, it was the first of a series of overpasses that got my heart pumping and legs burning.  From there it was lunch and back to the hotel to settle in. And that's when it started to get weird.

In the lobby, there was a handy itinerary of the evening's activities for our group.  It was the typical stuff -- 5:00 Happy Hour, 6:00 Dinner.  And then I noticed the Midnight activity: "Nanette & her spa girls host strip poker for the guys."  What???!!!  The joke had Bruce written all over it, but I couldn't figure out how he could have been involved.  And it also didn't seem like it was put together by anyone familiar with the concept of Punta Gorda midnight (i.e., when the clock strikes nine). Weird, and slightly embarrassing as the only single woman in the crowd, but whatever. 

Fast forward to dinner in our private dining room. I paid with cash and waited for the waiter to bring my change.  Instead, when he returned, he said, "How did you know my name?" "What?" I asked.  "How did you know my name?" he repeated.  He then showed me the five dollar bill that had been included with my payment.  On the front of the bill, a message had been written to "Blakey Poo" from his "secret admirer."  What???!!!  This was starting to get out of hand. 

When we went upstairs, Bruce freaked me out a bit as he reminded me that the hotel had changed my room at the last minute (probably, he suggested, to move me to a room with surveillance equipment).  "Never fear, though," he said.  "Dorrit will be right across the hall."  I wondered aloud if I would be able to scream if something actually happened or if I would lose my voice as if in a dream.  

But it was the music that really put me over the edge. First it was guitar music, soothing yet irritating at the same time. Then the harpsichord.  When I ventured out into the hall, I couldn't hear it, so I assumed it was music the guests above me played in order to get to sleep.  With a pillow over my head, I finally went to sleep, only to be awakened several times during the night as the door to the adjoining room rattled as if someone was trying to get in. 

When I awoke for the final time at 5:45, the music was still playing -- arghhhh.  I went downstairs to the lobby in search of a refuge only to find the music blaring from speakers with no one in attendance to turn it off.  And so I took the only logical course of action.  I wrote this blog while looking forward to being back home tonight in the peace and quiet of my own little piece of the world.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Year's Reads

My friend Dorrit told me about an Icelandic tradition of giving books as presents on Christmas Eve and then spending the rest of the night reading them. It's a wonderful idea, but I'd prefer to adopt it for New Year's Eve. (My days of eagerly waiting for the ball to drop are long past.) Here are some books to cozy up with whenever the mood might strike.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.  I'd been reading about this 2015 National Book Award Finalist for quite a while, but was resistant to picking it up.  What could be so special about a story of a marriage? But once I started this book (which I listened to on Audible), I found myself walking further and looking forward to time in the car so I could find out what would happen next.

Groff tells the couple's story in two parts. We hear first from Lotto, a golden boy who grew up with everyone expecting great things of him. The narrative of Lotto's life is sequential, from childhood through marriage to Mathilde. I was engrossed in Lotto's story, but found myself anxious to hear Mathilde's perspective. It was worth the wait. The circumstances of Mathilde's life before Lotto are a closely held secret she hasn't shared with anyone, including her husband. Mathilde's story unfolds in bits and pieces, and we learn one moment about her childhood and the next about her role as Lotto's wife.  All I can say is "wow."

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. This highly readable book has been on my list for some time.  It tells the story of two women--one at the end of her life and the other at the beginning--whose paths cross when the young woman is required to do community service for stealing a book. Over time, they realize their commonality and develop a real bond. Friends, as the saying goes, are the family you choose.

While I enjoyed the book, what I found most interesting was learning about the orphan train movement.  From the 1850s to 1929, more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from the East Coast were shipped westward by train in search of new homes. The passages in the book about the train ride and the selection process are particularly sad. And while some children ended up in loving adoptive homes, many were taken in as indentured servants (complete with a 90-day return policy).  The orphan train program was discontinued in the 1929 with the advent of what is now the foster care program (which, of course, has its own problems). 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I picked this book up in part because it was short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. But I also was drawn in by the prologue, which tells of Rosemary, a girl who was a "great talker" as a child. At bedtime, Rosemary's father would come in to tell her goodnight and Rosemary "would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice....'I have something to say,'  I'd tell him." "Skip the beginning," he'd respond. "Start in the middle."  And so this is how Rosemary relays the story of her life, by starting in the middle. 

The book is the story of Rosemary and her two siblings, Fern and Lowell.  Fern disappeared when Rosemary was five years old; Lowell ran away a decade ago. At its heart, the reason for these losses is simple. As the back of the book says, their father used their childhood as an experiment. 

Before you get too alarmed (or decide not to read this book on grounds of gruesomeness), there's no child abuse or neglect. Just a highly unusual living situation that, to the kids, is totally normal. It is when the circumstances change that their lives begin to go awry.

I don't want to say more because the relationships at the heart of this story are what make it so surprising, compelling and--ultimately--satisfying. What I will say, though, is this is a tale like no other written by an author at the peak of her craft.  I loved it. 

Make Me by Lee Child. Sometimes you just need a good thriller, and nobody writes one better than Lee Child.  Make Me is the 20th book in the Jack Reacher series, and I've read every one.  What I love about these books is the intelligence with which Reacher approaches the situations he wanders into. (Admittedly, it's quite beyond belief that one guy who randomly moves around the country carrying only his toothbrush could find so much trouble, but I'm more than willing to go with it.)

I fell into this book quickly, with an appreciation for the thought the bad guys put into burying a corpse in the first paragraph of the book. "They buried him close to the house. Which made sense...The harvest was still a month away, and a disturbance in a field would show up from the air. And they would use the air, for a guy like Keever. They would use search planes, and helicopters, and maybe even drones." The story takes off from there, and I went happily along for the ride.  

May your 2016 be filled with great reads!