Monday, August 22, 2016

True Stories from EdFringe

EdFringe offers every possible type of theater you can imagine (and some types you can't). This year Wendi and I were struck by the number of reality-inspired shows we saw. They ran the gamut in terms of style. But most hit their mark, both entertaining and educating the audience.  Read on for three of my favorites.

Margaret Lovatt with Peter
"Tank" by UK theater company Breach told the story of work done in the 1960s to teach dolphins how to speak English. The research was funded in part by NASA. (NASA's goal was to teach a non-human to speak English as practice for communication with the aliens we would bring home from space. The agency wanted to make sure the United States was ahead of Russia in this endeavor.) 

The show was incredibly well-done and incorporated tapes from the actual study. Not surprisingly, there was lots of humor and some fine dolphin imitations. And the portrayal of Margaret Lovatt as the sex object of Peter the dolphin--after she moved in with him--was handled tastefully. (I am not kidding. This aspect of the project hit all the news media, with "Hustler" writing a story titled "Interspecies Sex: Humans and Dolphins." Some stories report this as the most significant finding of the study.)

To read more about this crazy experiment, click here.  And to hear Margaret talk about her experiences in a BBC interview, click here.

Gayle Newland
"Scorch" by Belfast's Prime Cut Production revolved around an issue much in the news today -- gender dysphoria. "Kes" is a teenage girl who identifies as a boy. Searching for forums where he can be his true self, Kes enters the world of online dating. He meets Jules, and they begin an online relationship that ventures into the real world. Kes dresses carefully for these meetings, wearing loose clothing, a baseball cap and a binder to strap down his breasts (which, he says, burst forth one day like the creatures in "Alien"). Over time, their relationship becomes sexual (with the logistics of this left to the audience's imagination).

While Kes is sure that Jules knows he is biologically a female, they never talk about it. They're kids, after all, and how could Jules not know?

The truth eventually comes out, and Jules and her family seek prosecution against Kes for rape by deception/gender fraud. Kes ends up going to prison, confused about what he's done wrong and devastated that he's harmed the love of his life.

I was shocked to learn that there have been five cases in the UK in which a transgender person has been convicted of gender fraud in similar situations. In one case, Gayle Newland, a woman who identifies as a man, was sentenced to eight years in prison for rape by deception after posing as a woman's boyfriend for two years. Click here to read more about this and similar cases.

Actor Cal MacAninch in "My Eyes Went Dark"
"My Eyes Went Dark" at the Traverse Theatre featured Cal MacAninch who Wendi had recently seen on Broadway in "The Judas Kiss." But she hadn't been this up close and personal with the actor, who literally lay on the floor at our feet during a portion of the show. This immediacy lent even greater intensity to a tragic story. 

"My Eyes Went Dark" found its inspiration in the aftermath of a 2002 mid-air plane collision over Uberlingen,Germany that killed 71 people, 45 of whom were Russian schoolchildren. Three of those killed were the wife, 10 year old son and four year old daughter of Russian architect Vitali Kaloyev.

In the ensuing investigation, it was determined that--contrary to official policy but with management's knowledge--a single air traffic controller worked two stations on an overnight shift while a second controller rested in another room. His management of multiple flight patterns was a major factor in the crash, along with ongoing maintenance unknown to him that affected the radar management processing system.

Eight managers of SkyGuide, the air traffic control company, were tried in criminal court in connection with the collision.  Four were found guilty, three of whom were given a suspended sentence and one of whom paid a fine. Four others were found not guilty. It is unclear whether Peter Nielsen, the air traffic controller on duty, was a defendant in the case; if he was, he was found not guilty.

Wracked with grief and unsatisfied by the outcome of the trial, Kaloyev decided to take matters into his own hands. He tracked Nielson down at his home near Zurich and stabbed him to death. Kaloyev went to jail for his crime but received a hero's welcome at home upon his release.  Click here to read more about this case.

Cal MacAninch (who played Kaloyev) and Thusitha Jayasundera (who played numerous roles, including Kaloyev's wife, therapist and niece) truly inhabited their personas. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater as the audience watched the story unfold.

It's productions like these that made our EdFringe experience so memorable.  If you're a theater lover, you owe it to yourself to experience the Festival first-hand. Next year is the Festival's 70th year and promises to be crazier than ever. What are you waiting for??? 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

East Side Gallery Artist Margaret Hunter

 Visiting the East Side Gallery was one of the highlights of our trip to Berlin. The visual representation of what the end of the Cold War meant to artists from around the world is incredibly powerful.

Scottish painter Margaret Hunter was one of 109 artists from 21 countries who created the East Side Gallery.  Her work "Joint Venture" was one of the paintings that particularly caught my eye. Hunter graciously responded to my email asking about her involvement in the project. She also directed me to her website, which includes three fascinating blog posts about her East Side Gallery experience.  (Click here to read the posts.)

"Joint Venture" by Margaret Hunter
Hunter had studied in West Berlin in 1985 and, while there, exhibited her work on several occasions. She supposes this is how her name got in the mix when the project to create an open air art gallery on a preserved mile-long segment of the Wall was developed.  Not surprisingly, she jumped at the opportunity.

Hunter's "Joint Venture" is full of meaning. Her original concept was two stylized head with lines crisscrossing to suggest "the idea of communication, exchange and partnership." When laid on their side, Hunter says the heads reminded her of the strange bedfellows that the East and West Germans were to become.

Hunter at work
 Having been allocated seven panels measuring a total of 11' x 23', Hunter realized the heads alone would be insufficient to fill the space. She sought "a thread of interest to lead from the collective, the universal to the specific and individual." She began thinking about the people of East Germany and how, although happy about current developments, they were likely suffering from uncertainty as well.  Hunter says, "My supporting story became a series of small figures bending, stretching and contorting themselves to fit their new situation." The little stitches visible on the work are an allusion to cobbling Germany together. She called the work "Joint Venture," in part because the term had become a catchphrase of sorts for how Germany would operate going forward.


Even with the modified design, "Joint Venture" didn't cover all of Hunter's allotted space. She partnered with another Scottish artist to create "Hands" on the remaining panel. Hunter says her inspiration was the upraised hands of demonstrators during peaceful protests against the Wall in East Berlin and Leipzig.

 "Hands" was chosen for a renovation project by students from Berlin's Potsdam University sometime in the 1990s. The work was renovated again when the wholescale conservation of the East Side Gallery took place in 2009.  In the 2009 renovation, the Wall was repaired and whitewashed, with the artists then recreating their work. Due to the prior conservation of "Hands," its renovation was made without destruction of the original "canvas." It is now the only painting in the East Side Gallery which has not been repainted in its entirety.

In the time between 1990 and 2009, graffiti artists had made their presence known on the East Side Gallery.  "Joint Venture" was not exempt from this treatment, which Hunter refers to as a dialogue. Interestingly, she says no large marks had been made on the heads themselves. "It seemed that they [the graffiti artists] wanted to participate in the work but not destroy it," she said.

"Joint Venture (Restatement)" in a gallery setting
This experience led Hunter to recreate "Joint Venture" in a gallery setting and invite patrons to layer on their thoughts about what has happened in the years since the end of the Cold War.  She reports that her idea was not immediately embraced. "People were self-conscious and averted their eyes as I tried to entice them with my box of charcoal pencils and colorful pastels," she said. Once the first brave soul commented on the work, though, others joined in. Hunter views this iteration of her painting as "yet another platform on which artist and viewer could consider the continually shifting nature of the Wall's status."

If you happen to be in Berlin in September, Hunter will have an exhibit at Galerie Listros entitled "Dialogue." The show will include a version of "Joint Venture" on which people can provide their thoughts. I wish I could be there to participate. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nazi-Era Art at Berlin's Hamburger Banhof

Detail from "Night over Germany" by Horst Strempel

It was a happy coincidence that the Ringling Museum hosted a lecture on Nazi-era looted art about a month before I headed to Berlin. The talk --which focused on "degenerate" art in the Ringling's collection--was fascinating.

Although I knew about the Nazis' confiscation of artistic treasures for their personal collections, I didn't know that the Nazis had swept Germany's museums for works deemed "degenerate." Approximately 650 of these works were put on display in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art Exhibition) as a visual representation of the world the Nazis were fighting.  After its run in Munich, the exhibition traveled to other Nazi strongholds.  It is estimated that over 3 million people visited the show. 

"Studio Corner" by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

The Ringling had been gifted 12 works of art from the show by UPI war correspondent Edward Beattie in 1954. (Once the Entartete Kunst closed, the artwork was put on sale to raise foreign currency. The works that were not purchased were burned.) The big reveal was that Ringling Fellow Lauren von Bechmann had identified the museums from which the works were stolen. The Ringling is now in the process of returning the works to their rightful owners. (To read more about this story, click here for the article I wrote for Florida Weekly.)   

This is a long-winded way of explaining why I was so excited when Wendi and I came upon an exhibit at Hamburger Banhof featuring works the Nazis had labeled degenerate (as well as a few paintings that had received the Nazi stamp of approval).  

"Large Reclining Nude" by Picasso

The paintings in the show were all produced, acquired or confiscated during Nazi rule and are now owned by the National Gallery (of which Hamburger Banhof is a part). The description of the exhibit explained, "The collection...not only reflects stylistic developments in the history of art; it also sets out the complex relationships between artist, artwork, society, state and museum in a period marked by dictatorship, war and holocaust."  
"Melancholy" by Edvard Munch

In order to work in the field of art during the Nazi era, artists, art writers and art policy makers had to be able to prove their Aryan bloodline. Jewish artists were not only prevented from publicly displaying their work; they were forbidden to create artwork given its inherit degeneracy.

But being of Aryan ancestry and supporting Hitler's regime did not exempt an artist from having his work confiscated and ridiculed. "Modern" art--especially work by German expressionists--was frowned upon as well.  And so Edvard Munch (of "The Scream" fame) fell into disfavor despite both Joseph Goebbels' and Hermann Goering's appreciation for his work.

"The Fichtel Mountains" by Georg Schrimpf

The exhibit also included some examples of paintings that Hitler lauded as "not this so-called modern art, but true and eternal German art." Georg Schrimpf was an artist who walked the fine line between being an approved and sanctioned artist. The fact that his work developed in part from the cubist tradition did not operate in his favor, nor did his previous membership in the Social Democratic and Communist Party. But the empathy that Walter Darre, Nazi Minister of Food and Agriculture, felt for Schrimpf's "The Fichtel Mountains" overrode any concerns about his background. It is thought that Darre, who believed agriculture was all-important to the Nazis' dominance, saw his world view reflected in Schrimpf's painting.

Standing in front of these paintings brought the issues surrounding Nazi-era art to life in a way looking at artwork on a page (or a computer screen) cannot.  Kudos to the National Gallery for maintaining public awareness about this aspect of Germany's dark history. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Erwin Wurm: One Minute Sculptures

Jetlagged yet excited to be in Berlin, Wendi and I stumbled into the Berlinische Galerie. Art was definitely on our agenda for our time there, and there was an exhibit about Art in Berlin from 1880-1980 that I was eager to see. But that exhibit paled in comparison to the sheer fun of Erwin Wurm's One Minute Sculptures.

Once we entered the museum, we could see a room with people in weird poses laughing and taking pictures. What in the heck was going on? 

There were approximately ten stations (for lack of a better word) with various paraphernalia and drawings showing the pose to be adopted.  After lying on the ground on a bunch of tennis balls (incredibly uncomfortable), I quite literally became a bag lady. 

We posed holding books in contorted ways and with our legs through a hole in a sofa. We tried to balance a bottle of toilet cleaner on our heads. We nearly lost it when Wendi couldn't figure out how to get her head through a hole intended for an arm.  (As I said, we were jetlagged.)   

We even had a chance to be in a doghouse. (I was only slightly disappointed that the set-up didn't call for me to stick my head out the other side.) 

Edwin Wurm is an Australian artist who has been creating his One Minute Sculptures since the 1980s. The organization Public Delivery describes the creations as "a sculptural variant of situation comedy because they unleash a similar effect: usually funny, often embarrassing, occasionally flowing with pathos." 

Wurm recognizes the humor in the works, but his intention goes much deeper.  "It is about how we see ourselves in the world," he said, "And a part of us is just ridiculous." Many of his sculptures (although none in this exhibit) have a sexual component, with "bumps" protruding from trousers and the like.

Wurm has noticed cultural differences in the way people approach the sculptures.  Americans, he noted, are very open to the concept (with Wendi and me being a case in point).  The Japanese also reportedly love implementing the sculptures, while Germans and Austrians approach them with caution.

With F.K .Alexander

The experience was my first opportunity to be part of a performance art piece this vacation. It wasn't my last, however. One of the shows we saw at EdFringe was called "(I Could Go On Singing) Over the Rainbow," with FK Alexander as Judy Garland.  For an hour, audience members stepped up and Alexander took their hand, gazed into their eyes and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to music created by a local "noise band."  While it sounds strange, the experience--both watching and participating--was intimate and engrossing.  (We learned in another show that a study has shown that people often fall in love with one another after gazing into each other's eyes for four minutes. Luckily, Alexander's rendition fell under the four minute mark.  Click here to read about this study.) 

It all goes to show how much fun you can have if you allow yourself to be open to unexpected experiences. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

EdFringe, Here We Come!

About the time this post hits goes live, Wendi and I will be settling into our first show at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Since this is our third EdFringe, you'd think we'd be pros by now at figuring out our schedules. And there are some theater companies/performers from years past whom we are seeking out. But with nearly 100 pages of theater offerings to choose from, the selection process continues to be daunting.  Here are a few of the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing.

Paines Plough, the UK's national theater of new plays, has consistently offered strong productions at EdFringe.And so there was no question that this year's line-up would be in our schedule. I'm most looking forward to "Growth" by up-and-coming UK playwright Luke Norris. As you might have gleaned by the promo, it's the story of a guy who had to have one of his balls cut off. (There's really no delicate way to say it.) While it sounds kind of grim, Paines Plough is a master at dealing with serious subjects with humor. I'm expecting it to be entertaining while raising some real issues.

The offerings at the Traverse, Scotland's new writing theater, were also a priority when working our calendar. Last year's shows at the Traverse were some of the most intense and dark theater we saw. And while I do love a good drama, I'm happy to see that this year's schedule includes a mix of comedy, drama and music, with a good amount of technology mixed in.

"In Fidelity"

I have high hopes for Rob Drummond's "In Fidelity." The Traverse program says of the show, "Part TED Talk, part theatrical experiment, In Fidelity combines evolutionary theory and a live onstage date." (Intriguing, right?) As research for his show, Drummond had an MRI of his brain and discovered that his ventromedial prefrontal cortex surged when looking at both pictures of his wife (good) and other pictures (potentially not so good). I can't wait to see how he's woven this information into his multi-media presentation.  

We couldn't resist a show that comes with a warning of "total blackouts, adult themes and scenes of a violent nature." "Cut" by Duncan Graham tells the story of a woman who, when pursued by a man, becomes both the hunter and the hunted. The description promises, "Part installation, part theatre poem, part noir thriller, prepare to be sealed into this intimate and unforgettable experience."  I am also preparing myself for things that go bump in the night. 

"One Hundred Homes"

"One Hundred Homes" is the type of theater I only see in Edinburgh. Yinka Kuitenbrouwer visited over 100 people and talked with them about their idea of "home." With the help of snapshots, quotes and biscuits (which I hope she shares), she will piece together a story based on these interviews. And here's the unique part -- the show will take place in a small wooden cabin built specifically for the occasion. 


One of the fun things about EdFringe is its variety. While Wendi and I focus primarily on theater, we do sprinkle some improv, music, circus, and dance into our schedule. This year our final booked show is Joli Vyann's "Imbalance."  It's an acrobatic dance piece that explores the impact of technology on our lives. Thanks to YouTube, we could check out what the show looks like before booking it.  (Click here to see a clip of the performance.)  It looks like a wonderful way to end this year's EdFringe experience.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Horst: Photographs - Fashion and Surrealism at the Dali

"Dali" by Horst

The special exhibits at the Dali Museum in St. Pete are always interesting. I kicked up my appreciation of the Museum's current exhibit -- Horst: Photographs - Fashion and Surrealism -- by sitting in on the monthly coffee with a curator.  The insights shared by Joan Kropf, curator of collection, were fascinating.

The show is a streamlined version of an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London that included 400 photos by Horst. Susanna Brown from the V&A came over to help install the show at the Dali and train the docents. It's the only opportunity to see the exhibit in the United States.

Horst is best known for creating 94 gorgeous and innovative covers for "Vogue." I loved hearing about the relationships between Horst and his models. Russian model Lud was delivering packages when Horst discovered her.  Her exotic look was different from that of European and American models of the day. She was rumored--quite scandalously--to have had plastic surgery to reduce the size of her breasts and thighs to create the perfect silhouette for Horst. Her modeling years were cut short when she fell in love with a lion trainer and ran away with the circus.

While this image shows off the beautiful dress Lud is wearing, the set is equally captivating. Having apprenticed with LeCorbusier, Horst had a great appreciation for architecture.  A fan of Greco-Roman architecture in particular, he often created the sets himself that served as backdrops for the models.
"Lisa with Harp"

Dancer-turned-model Lisa Fonssagrives credited her career to Horst.  "I became a model because he made me one," she said. (Fonssagrives might be best known for her collaboration with Irving Penn, whom she married after they met on a shoot.)

Carmen Dell'Orefice also sang Horst's praises. "He saw me as a living sculpture to be projected through his photographs," she said. She lauded his understanding of how light falls upon an object.

The Mainbocher Corset
Horst's most famous photograph is probably "The Mainbocher Corset."  (Coincidentally, this photo was recreated by Sandro Miller with John Malkovich in the exhibit I recent saw at Yancey Richardson gallery in New York. John's back is more muscular.)  I learned two interesting tidbits about this photo during the talk. First, the designer's name is properly pronounced "Maine-Bocker" rather than "Man-bo-shay."  (Not surprisingly, he was a proponent of the incorrect pronunciation.) Second, when the photo ran in "Vogue," it was airbrushed to close the gap between the corset and the model on the left hand side of the image.  That small amount of space was apparently just too scandalous in 1939.

One of the fun things about the show is seeing actual pages from "Vogue" from the era. The 1940 discussion of corsets was particularly laughable (yet terrifying). "That smooth long torso line. Perhaps you have it, and merely smile a dreamy smile at the mention. Or perhaps you are one of the ones who are tired of hearing the sound of those words. If you are, what you probably need is a new corset."   

To see more online images by Horst, click here. But there's really nothing like seeing the photos in person, especially his platinum paladium prints. If you're interested in learning more about the techniques Horst used in his work, there's a free lecture at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 18th. Either way, it's definitely worth a trip to St. Pete to see the exhibit before it closes on September 6th.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reading away the lazy days of summer

Summer in Florida is a great time to catch up on my reading.  It's too hot and humid to be out and about. The entertainment of the Republican National Convention aside, TV offerings are sparse. And most theaters are dark. Read on for two books that kept me happily occupied.

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit is a YA (young adult) book with more than enough power to speak to adults. The book tells the story of Anna, a seven year old girl whose father is a linguistics professor. He's taught her to speak several languages and introduced her to friends with whom she practices her language skills. "Anna had thought that each of the languages her father spoke had been tailored, like a bespoke suit of clothes, to the individual person with whom he conversed. French was not French; it was Monsieur Bouchard. Yiddish was not Yiddish, it was Reb Shmulik. Every word and phrase of Armenian that Anna had ever heard reminded her of the face of the little old tatik who always greeted her and her father with small cups of strong, bitter coffee."  It is 1939 in Poland, though, and Anna's father is taken away by the Gestapo for being an intellectual.  Her mother is long dead, leaving Anna to fend for herself.

She meets a mysterious man who, like herself, speaks multiple languages, including the language of the Road. He cryptically tells her to follow him, but to make an effort to stay out of sight. And so begins the journey of this man and girl who spend years walking across Poland in an attempt to survive the war. "The world as it exists is a very dangerous place," he tells her. Anna immediately realizes the extent to which her life has changed. "Usually when adults spoke of danger in her presence, they were quick to reassure that everything would be all right, that she would be safe. This man did none of this, and his omission rang out as true in the night as his words had."

Anna and the Swallow Man is a beautiful book about two people alone in a frightening world. In some ways, it's a very simple story with a fairy tale quality to it. In other ways, it's complex in the way that relationships often are. Don't let the YA label discourage you from reading a book the Wall Street Journal calls "exquisite" and the New York Times applauds as "masterful storytelling." 

The Namesake was the first novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. (The prize was awarded to her for "The Interpreter of Maladies," a collection of short stories.)  The book tells the story of an Indian family transplanted from Calcutta to Massachusetts.

When we first meets Ashima, she is about to give birth to their son Gogol. Between contractions, Ashima thinks back to her introduction to her husband Ashoke (whose name she didn't learn until a week after their marriage had been arranged). She had stood outside the living room in her family's Calcutta home where the visitors had left their shoes. In a shocking act of intimacy, she stepped into the shoes of the man she would marry. "Lingering sweat from the owner's feet mingled with hers, causing her heart to race; it was the closest thing she had ever experienced to the touch of a man."

While readers learn about each member of the family, Gogol is the focal point of the story as we follow his life from infancy to his 30s. Once old enough to have a real opinion, his name is a source of dissatisfaction. Gogol's discomfort with his name is representative of his discomfort with his identity. He is caught between the Bengali world of his parents and the American world which he's always known.

One reason The Namesake  is so captivating is Lahiri's insights into Bengali traditions. The genesis of Gogol's name is just one example. It was intended by his parents to be his "pet name" (the name used by family and friends), with his "good name" (the name used for work and legal purposes) being bestowed by Ashima's grandmother. But the letter from India with this important information was lost in transit, leaving the young couple floundering. They chose to call him Gogol, a name linked to an important event in Ashoke's life. It had no meaning to Gogol, though, and he grew up feeling burdened by a name neither Bengali nor American.

Authors are often told to write what they know, and Lahiri has done just that. Born in London to Bengali parents, she moved to the United States at the age of 2.  Like Gogol, she had a pet name--Jhumpa--and a proper name--Nilanjan. Her kindergarten teacher took it upon herself to call the little girl by her pet name because it was easier to pronounce. 

Like Anna and the Swallow Man, The Namesake took me to a world wholly different from my own. And that, after all, is one of the many joys of reading.