Saturday, May 26, 2007

Back in the Greasepaint Again!

Self Portrait by Ian Thal (click for larger image)

May 19th 2007: I am in the kitchen of an elementary school in Brookline putting on makeup. For the last several months I had performed masked, or with minimal or no make up at all, but now for the second weekend in a row I am back to wearing my clown white. I snap a photograph of myself in the mirror in my makeup kit.

Last week had been a paid gig. The client was a philanthropy that wanted a "French" theme, and thus, a French mime (I wore a black Basque béret.) This week, I am performing as a favor and so I have chosen a more fanciful costume variant.

In 2004, I began my association with The Greater Boston Community Center for the Arts (formerly, the Brookline Community Center for the Arts) where I had my first work as a mime instructor. The following year, while preparing to purchase the building, an unexpected series of events occured and caused the BCCA to lose the building, and so, Dan Yonah Ben-Dror Marshall, the president and artistic director had recruited me and a number of other affiliated artists to provide entertainment at the school's fair in order maintain BCCA's visability while he continues to solicit support in the community for the purchase of a new building.

Though I often have quiet spells, people seem to have typed me as a loquacious poet, and so by also being a mime, I can charge an hourly rate for shutting up.

And now for a strange interlude on artist fees from Animal Crackers. Keep in mind that Spaulding and Ravelli speak of 1929 dollars:

Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont): You are one of the musicians? You were not due until tomorrow.

Ravelli (Chico Marx): Couldn't come tomorrow. That's too quick.

Spaulding (Groucho Marx): Say, you're lucky they didn't come yesterday.

Ravelli: We were busy yesterday, but we charge just the same.

Spaulding: This is better than exploring. What do you fellows get an hour?

Ravelli: Ah, for playing we getta ten dollars an hour.

Spaulding: I see, what do you get for not playing?

Ravelli: Twelve dollars an hour.

Spaulding: Well clip me off a piece of that.

Ravelli: Now... for rehearsing, we make a special rate, that'sa fifteen dollars an hour.

Spaulding: That's for rehearsing.

Ravelli: That'sa for rehearsing.

Spaulding: And what do you get for not rehearsing?

Ravelli: You couldn't afford it. You see if we don't rehearse, we don't play. And if we don't play that runs into money.

Spaulding: How much would you want to run into an open manhole?

Ravelli: Just the cover charge.

(This exchange comes about 6:12 into this clip. How much of it is Morrie Ryskind's original script and how much is improvised is unknown to me.)

I emerge into the school cafeteria and I am immediately surrounded by a very receptive audience of children and a few parents. My first series of lazzi involve an untied shoelace. First, I step on the shoelace with the result of a finding that my foot is tethered to the ground as I take my next step. Second, I operate my foot like a marionette. Third, I start playing the long, untied shoelace along with the bassist from Blus Cabaret (a band with whom my friend, Lo Galluccio often sings). My next lazzo is an attempt to button my shirt that begins with my putting the top button into the bottom hole. This struggle seems especially entertaining for most of the smaller children who probably have just as much trouble getting in and out of their clothing as I did at their age (ironic as the grandson of a tailor from Lodz and Montreal.)

After a few more extended gags that take me from one end of the cafeteria to the other, with a large crowd of small people following behind, Dan Marshall announces that he is to begin is kung fu demonstration and invites me to take part (we had done a couple of demos together before at public events-- the idea of having an actual clown present as he teaches kung fu to children appeals to both our senses of humor.)

Fortunately, greasepaint is sweat resistant and I only have to fix my eyeliner afterwards. I rejoin Dan for his salsa dance demonstration, and engage in a bit more clowning with my partner.

I roam off to try some more routines elsewhere in the school fair and return to the cafeteria to see a hip-hop demonstration by Megatron (a hip-hop dancer, not a fictitious robot) and some of his younger protegées. Megatron, in a question and answer segment, credits the mime, Robert Shields for originating "the robot" dance-- thus revealing part of the little known link between break dancing and mime!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Corrections to "Breaking with Bread and Puppet"

I have made some corrections to my April 11th entry "Breaking with Bread and Puppet" which describes my parting ways with Bread and Puppet Theater when I determined that the performance and acompanying art exhibit contained Holocaust denial and anti-Israeli propaganda and little factual basis.

The corrections fill in more detail on Silesia, and the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Re: Should Somerville Have a Poet Laureate?

After some debate over whether such a position should exist in the first place, Allen Bramhall has declared himself Poet Laureate of Boston. Across the river, Cambridge is also toying with the idea. While here in Somerville, Doug Holder has begun to campaign for Somerville to have its own Poet Laureate on both his blog and his column in The Somerville News.

[Note: the fellow pictured in Holder's blog is not a 'villen at all, but a Briton named Luke Wright.]

Holder quotes me as saying:

Ian Thal (Poet/Mime/Performer): “The question should be: ‘Would having a poet laureate serve Somerville in a manner that the Somerville Arts Council does not already?’ The Somerville Arts Council does a better job than most cities in Massachusetts supporting the arts/artists (certainly better than Boston). The laureate position should add something to what is already there.”

Just to clarify my statements: Outside of the experience of having my poems in Boston City Hall (the poems were written and submitted while I still resided in Boston), I have found that most of the support I have received for my art inside of Boston has been from artist-run organizations like Mobius or Artists at Large, Inc. while the Cambridge Arts Council and the Somerville Arts Council are very visible in the community, the result being a friendlier and supportive environment for artists relative to the situation on the other side of the river. My experience of Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville are school systems in which the arts are integrated into the curriculum, while in Boston, arts education exists only at the discretion of visionary administrators at specific schools.

The point being that anything Boston might do to raise the status of any art form would be a great improvement while Somerville's proposed laureate position should come with a mandate to further enhance Somerville's efforts.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

"Sine Waves and Canadian Geese" at Boston City Hall

As mentioned previously, my poem, "Sine Waves and Canadian Geese" was chosen by Charles Coe as part of an exhibit sponsored by the Mayor's Prose and Poetry Program at Boston City Hall. As I had just received a digital camera as a birthday present, I decided to document the poem before the exhibit ended on May 23rd. This was the second time on of my poems had been selected.

As I toured the entire exhibit, which spanned nearly every floor of City Hall, and photographed some of my friends' poems as a favor to those without digital cameras, including work by Elizabeth K. Doran, Chad Parenteau, Mignon Ariel King and James E. Van Looy, my frequent colaborator in Cosmic Spelunker Theater. I was particularlly taken with a poem by Ellen Steinbaum for having evoked the paintings of Childe Hassam an American Impressionist painter who so often captured scenes of Boston.

On my way out, I decided to sign and date my poem posted by the elevators-- I thought it might be of interest to city archivists.

Friday, May 18, 2007

May 17th: "I Refused to Die" Reading at McIntyre and Moore

On the evening of May 17th, after my stroll through Boston City Hall, I attended a reading for Susie Davidson's anthology, I Refused to Die at McIntyre & Moore Booksellers in Davis Square. The book is a collection of essays oral histories by Holocaust survivors and camp liberators living in the Boston metropolitan area.

Typically, Davidson's appearances are with Kovno ghetto survivor, Rosian Zerner, and Dachau camp liberator, Cranston "Chan" Rogers. Zerner was unable to attend that evening and Rogers was running late, so Davidson spent time describing the process of putting together the book, (which included a cross country trip on a Greyhound bus to organize her assembled notes without the distraction of home) and read excerpts from the tales of other survivors. In addition, as the book also includes contributions from local poets, she asked Rafael Woolf and me to read. Woolf's poem was a polemic directed at Holocaust denier, Bradley Smith.

Because there are so many accounts of great literary merit written by actual survivors and I am not a trained historian, I have thus far avoided writing directly on the subject, but this sublimation appears to manifests itself in confronting theological anti-Judaism, exposing Holocaust denial, such as the play I am currently developing. Somehow, in the process, I've also written a couple of poems.

The first, "Numbers" is one I wrote because I had been invited to participate in a poetry reading at The New England Holocaust Memorial for no particular reason beyond the fact that I am Jewish. It was in memory of a cousin of mine who had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. I long considered it an act of pretentiousness on my part, so I read it so infrequently, but editors keep asking permission to reprint it, so I must be the one in error. The second is entitled "Metathesis of the Books" and was inspired by a series of paintings by Samuel Bak, a child survivor of the Vilna ghetto, whose allegorical works have inspired me for many years.

Chan Rogers, a native of Florida, arrived and spoke informally in a gravelly Southern accent about his experiences as a sergeant in the 45th Infantry Division often taking questions. After the war, he went on to study at MIT and became a civil engineer who designed many features in the Boston area including the Cambridge Street underpass that goes under the Harvard University campus. He explained that he and other veterans never spoke much about their World War II experiences for years since after the war, so many of them ended up going to school and working with other men who had had similar experiences, and it was a matter of passing these stories on to other generations that has caused him to speak.

Rogers spoke of April 29, 1945, the day when 45th Thunderbird Division entered the Dachau concentration camp by way of a railroad bridge after a surrender had been arranged by the Red Cross. (In 2001 I was present to hear a friendly disagreement between a veteran of the 45th and one from the 42nd Rainbow Division over whose division was the first into Dachau as the 42nd had entered the camp from the other direction.) Rogers explained that while he had already seen much carnage already in the war, he was unprepared for Dachau, having only been told that it was a prison where "Hitler kept his enemies." Senior SS officers had abandoned the camp in advance of the surrender, leaving their underlings to be captured by advancing American forces.

He also made mention of the Dachau massacre that occurred that day after troops from both the 45th and 42nd discovered not only the starvation, disease, and overcrowding of the 32,000 prisoners, but thousands of corpses, including the 39 rail cars each filled with over 100 bodies. Rogers' own research indicates that trains had come from the Buchenwald concentration camp and that the prisoners had died primarily of starvation having been shipped out without food in advance of American troops who liberated the camp on April 11th. The Dachau massacre resulted in the death of 35 captured SS "Death's Head" guards, for which several American soldiers faced court-martial, though General Patton decided they deserved no further punishment.

Rogers made a number of parallels to current events, most notably the recent Holocaust denial conference hosted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, noting that the deniers' agenda in this particular was clearly to de-legitimize Israel's right to exist.

Given the informality of the event Rogers also recounted a number of anecdotes, including an encounter with the daughter of German-American Bund leader, Fritz Kuhn, who taunted Rogers and his troops with threats that the German Army would return to rout the Americans out. He grinned as he quipped, "That never happened."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Tokens: Contemporary Poetry Of The Subway

Tokens: Contemporary Poetry Of The Subway, edited by Peggy Garrison, and David Quintavalle, and published by their P & Q Press was the first book for which a poem of mine ("Into the Station") was selected for publication, so imagine my pride when I learned that the New York Transit Museum had selected it for its teacher resource curriculum!

Of course, this would not be the last poem I would write about subways or rail travel in general.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reading Poetry on the Trolley

Your flamboyant author. (All photography by Gloria Mindock.)

Sunday, May 6, 2007:

I arrived a few minutes before 3:00pm in front of the Davis Square T-Stop to catch the trolley on which I planned to read. This, however, would be the day when the trolley would be ahead of schedule and so I missed it, leaving me unable to read with Carolyn Gregory as previously announced. So instead, I sat on a concrete pylon dressed rather flamboyantly and waited another half-hour for the next trolley.

As an aficianado of rail travel, I should note that "trolley" is a misnomer here. The vehicle in question is a sightseeing bus rented by the City of Somerville to ferry people about during Somerville Open Studios. The upper body is styled like a trolley of the late 19th and 20th century, made of wood and wrought metal as street cars were before the PPC Streetcar became widely used. A proper trolley is light rail car that is powered by electricity from overhead cables. I last rode a genuine pre-PPC trolley back in 2005.

Due to the fact that I was terribly conspicuous, people kept expecting me to be passing out maps. Apparently, in a city where George Washington first took command of the Continental Army, anyone dressed in a facsimile of 18th century garb must be involved in the tourist industry. The fact is that I had been to a yard sale the week before, and just as I was buying a copy of The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett: Krapp's Last Tape (Beckett wasn't using them anymore) I looked up and said "what an extraordinary coat!" Normally I am immune to impulse purchases, but I fell in love with the full costume of a flamboyant 18th century pirate. (The tricorner hat was too large and the long coat was too opulent for a mere colonial.) Needless to say, that I had to wear it that day, though I added a sweater because I felt a cold coming on.

At 3:35pm the next "trolley" pulled up. On board were Timothy Gager, Dick Lourie and Gloria Mindock of Červená Barva Press who had organized the readings. I asked to read with them, and so Tim, Dick, and I played read a round robin, passing the microphone in between poems. Tim, I have known for a while as a short story writer and poet, but Dick was someone I knew only by reputation as both a poet and blues musician. Gloria was present mostly as the organizer and an audience member. Tim took the role of master of ceremonies.

Enough of the poems I had selected had to deal with trains and subways, that Russ, our driver, asked me if I had ever worked as a conductor.

Ian with Tom Daley and Russ

Tim and Dick debarked at Union Square, to be replaced by Tom Daley and Luke Salisbury. Tom, as well as being a poet I admire, is a fellow curmudgeon who is sometimes the subject of derision in our poetry community because he wants to read good poetry. Luke mostly read from his novel, Hollywood and Sunset, a picturesque novel about the early film industry.

Ian and Luke Salisbury, reading from Hollywood and Sunset

About an hour later I was in Davis Square again-- and two and a half hours after that I would be at a theatre audition.

More photos from the event can be seen here

Thursday, May 3, 2007

May 5th and 6th: Poetry on a Somerville Trolley

In coordination with Somerville Open Studios, Gloria Mindock of Červená Barva Press has organized a poetry reading on a trolley that will connect Davis Square with the future Medford Street Station in Somerville, in honor of the future Green Line Trolley extention. Readings and the Trolley will run noon to 6pm on May 5th and 6th. I will be reading on the trolley leaving Davis Square at 3pm on Sunday, May 6th with Carolyn Gregory. Click here for a full schedule of poets and trolleys!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Adventures of CMYK

Last night, I attended a screening of The Adventures of CMYK, a film by Katherine Machaiek, a student at Emerson College. It's a funny, low budget movie about a trio of kids who foil an evil genius' attempt to destroy the world (or at least a substantial part of it.) "Low budget" is hardly an insult as student films (and indeed many independent films) rely heavily on volunteers and donations-- and as often demonstrated in the 1970s by Doctor Who, clever scripts, charismatic acting, and and imaginative design easily trumps a low budget.

I have a single scene in the film which was shot last fall at a school in Concord, Massachusetts. I play the eccentric and foppish homeroom teacher of the protagonists. It's a better performance than I recall, so I'm quite proud to have been involved.

Trivia: Most of the Greek and Latin on the chalkboard is my doing. I wrote it out as the crew was preparing the set the moment I noticed that the classroom we were using belonged to a high school classics teacher. Everything on the board is connected with the theme of the film. I owe this to my interest in the philosophy of technology, an interest that began from my readings of Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology.

N.B.: Here is a link to the preview trailler: