Monday, October 29, 2012

Review of "Voltaire & Frederick"

Meanwhile, over at The Arts Fuse as a follow-up to my discussion with Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and Annette Klein of the Goethe-Institut Boston and artist-in-residence, Guy Ben-Aharon about German Stage, the Goethe-Institut's new initiative to bring German theatre to Boston audiences, I review a reading of Gericke-Schönhagen's play Voltaire & Frederick: A Life in Letters.

The reading, which is directed by Ben-Aharon and features Thomas Derrah as Voltaire and John Kuntz as Frederick II of Prussia, is touring both in New England and Canada.

[T]he letters frequently touch on issues as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century: Voltaire’s objections to the repeated attempts of theologians to use state power to limit freedom of thought and expression echo powerfully in an era when creationists are attempting to ban the teaching of evolution or when Salman Rushdie lives under a fatwa for writing a novel. Voltaire’s arrest at the hands of Frederick’s government illustrates the degree in which leaders are imprisoned by the public roles they play. Frederick’s meditatations on the gap between his ideal of how the world should be and his responsibility to face the world as it is revealed an irony that Voltaire must have appreciated: the king had a strong distaste for the wars he was so good at winning.

There is also a surprisingly lively discussion in the comments section between Gericke-Schönhagen and my editor at The Arts Fuse, Bill Marx.

Nothing But Trouble: Amanda Palmer and the Gift Economy

Over in my column at the Clyde Fitch Report, my piece on the recent Amanda Palmer controversy has reportedly set a record for the most widely read article since the website's relaunch this past summer.

For those of you who are unfamiliar: Amanda Palmer is the musician, songwriter, and performance artist who used to front the Boston-based punk-cabaret, duo The Dresden Dolls. After breaking with her record label over reasons that I don't cover in the article, she decided self-produce, mobilizing her fan-base to crowd-fund her new album, tour and other related projects to the tune of US$1,192,793 (she had only asked for $100,000.)

Though the amount was itself record breaking, the fundraising scheme is not what was at the center of the controversy, websites like Kickstarter have become a means by which arts patronage has been democratized, and simply fulfills the promise that the internet has offered in bridging the gap between the working artist and his or her fans and customers.

What was controversial was Palmer's (since rescinded) request that while on tour with her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, musicians in selected cities should play in her string and horn sections with only beer, high-fives, hugs, and swag as payment. Depending on to whom she was addressing, she either claimed that this was an experiment, something she was doing for her fans, part of her determining her own way of conducting her business, or simply that she could not afford to pay musicians.

Ultimately, the position one takes on this controversy depends on where one draws the line between the gift-economy and the market economy and whether or not you believe the line needs to be redrawn when one individual has the sort of star power to be simply handed $1.2 million by her fans:

The upshot is that musicians were unpaid when it was convenient and paid when it was seen as necessary, also claiming that when musicians were not being paid, that they were happy with the situation. She further responded to her critics by noting the times she had played for free, or had famous musicians sit in with her and concluding that “YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME” with the implication that there was an equal playing field between an artist who is capable of raising over a million dollars from enthusiastic fans and one who may very well be struggling to make ends meet. The underlying argument was that the market (that is the employer, that is Amanda Palmer) should set the wages and working conditions and everyone should be happy for the opportunity to play with Amanda Palmer no matter their pay-scale. Shockingly, it is the same argument that free-market libertarians make against labor unions and health and safety regulations. It was also quite at odds with her decision to perform Leon Rosselon’s song The World Turned Upside Down at an October 6, 2011, Occupy Boston event.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to know Palmer well, but I traveled in some of the same circles for many years, and even performed in a few of her projects.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In The Arts Fuse: A Conversation on German Theatre in Boston

In The Arts Fuse, I have a discussion with theatre director Guy Ben-Aharon, and Goethe-Institut Boston Director Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and Program Curator Annette Klein about their new project, German Stage, a series presenting contemporary German plays to Boston audiences. The program runs in parallel to Ben-Aharon's other series, Israeli Stage, which similarly presents work by Israeli playwrights.

German Stage makes its premiere on October 15th with Voltaire and Frederick: A Life In Letters which is based upon the correspondence between Voltaire and Frederick II of Prussia and was conceived by Gericke-Schönhagen.

Amongst the topics we discuss are the differences between German and American theatre:

Ben-Aharon: Though American playwrights are not well-paid, their work is looked at with great respect by American theatres and directors. One could say American theatre is a playwright’s medium; their dialogue is never changed without permission, and the chronology of a play is something one would never tamper with, unless in a workshop context with the playwright in the room. German directors seem to have a greater ‘power’ than the power of their American counterparts: they are freer to explore and re-explore a play’s theme or story by changing its course, i.e. German directors will take a script and direct the scenes in a different order than what was originally written. This is something American directors would never imagine doing.

As well as the relevance of Voltaire and Frederick II in the 21st century (particularly on Boston stages which last year saw the acclaimed Mary Zimmerman helmed production of Candide at the Huntington as well as the superficial name dropping of David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette at American Repertory Theatre:)

Gericke-Schönhagen: The questions raised by the Enlightenment are more relevant today than ever before. They have shifted from a European level to a global level. If you read how Frederick and Voltaire discussed questions of religion, superstition, so-called blasphemy and persecution from their very first letter on, when Frederick was 24 and Voltaire was 42, you feel as if it was today and you are reading a discussion in The New York Times. Frederic hated the superstitious European monarchs of his time, who often were intellectually uneducated and thus overly influenced by intellectually superior, power-driven advisers from the churches. Frederick was not a democrat, but he was an intellectual, highly educated, radically secular yet tolerant of religious belief.

The conversation continues in The Arts Fuse!

Monday, October 8, 2012

October 13: Albanian Writers Day in Worcester, MA

Satuday, October 13th: My friend Chad Parenteau and I will be reading from Tingujt e erës: Lirikë e re Amerikane or Sounds of Wind: New American Lyrics as part of Albanian Writer's Day at the Worcester Public Library.

Tingujt e erës is a bilingual anthology of American poets both in English and translated into Albanian by Lediana Stillo and edited by Abdyl Kadolli, and published by the Writers Union of Kosova (Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve e Kosovës.)

It was due to the publication of this book that I travelled to Kosovo this past June as a guest of the Writers Union. Some of my adventures were recounted here.

I should also note that outside of a few open mic appearances, this will be the first time I will have given a poetry reading in North America in several years.

Albanian Writers Day is presented by the Bleta Association and will run from 11am to 3pm. The event  is free and open to the public.

The Worcester Public Library is located at 3 Salem Square, Worcester MA 01608

Monday, October 1, 2012

Arts Fuse Review: Les 7 Doigts de la Main's "Séquence 8"

This past weekend The Arts Fuse ran my review of Montréal-based nouveau cirque troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main's Séquence 8:

The agility of Les 7 Doigts de la Main’s acrobats may be the spectacle that draws audiences in to see Séquence 8, but it’s their decision to treat acrobatics and other types of circus virtuosity as a form of acting that offers a new, intimate direction for the nouveau cirque genre.

Séquence 8 runs through to October 7th at ArtsEmerson.

Arts Fuse Interview: Lenelle Moïse's "Expatriate"

"Rebel" from Lenelle Moise on Vimeo.

While not updating this blog, I also managed to have an email conversation with Lenelle Moïse, whose show, Expatriate is coming to Boston this weekend:

AF: Though American expats can be found all over the world, the Parisian expatriate experience is as much part of American mythology as venturing into the frontier. Traveling to Europe plays a particularly significant role in African-American cultural history when one considers the number of Black artists and intellectuals (many of whom were also queer) who moved to Paris to escape the tyranny of pre-civil Rights America. What’s the symbolic role of Paris today?

Moïse: A lot of people associate French culture with pleasure and protest. From escargot to Picasso to the Marquis de Sade to Bastille Day, the French maintain a global reputation for being revolutionary, stylish, occasionally scandalous, and often cool. I think Black American artists—some of them women, some of them queer—share this reputation. Unfortunately, post-civil rights America still marginalizes creative professionals, women, LGBT folks, and people of color. Even President Obama has to deal with people not thinking he’s American enough because he’s of African descent. I wonder if Black expatriates can only feel American when they’re in exile? James Baldwin and Nina Simone had to relocate to France to feel respected as artists. Much of their work focused on American identity politics, but we remember it because it was skillful and beautiful. The French “get” beauty.

I also spoke to Abe Rybeck, founder the The Theater Offensive, a Boston based theatre company whose work focuses on LGBT themes:

AF: You started TTO in 1989, making it roughly contemporary with political movements like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and Queer Nation. This means that for over two decades, as well as producing its own work, TTO has also been a presenting organization for queer artists from all over the nation and world. What changes have you seen in the world of queer theater?

Rybeck: Yeah, we grew out of a queer, guerrilla street theater troupe called United Fruit Company that started doing AIDS and liberation-themed activism in 1985. So we actually predated ACT UP by a couple years [ACT UP was founded in 1987]. One of the enormous changes I’ve seen is that in big city theater scenes, queer work isn’t so scarce anymore, which is great. These days, no major theater company in a city like Boston would program its season without discussing what might be of interest to gay men. That puts many gay theater groups around the country in a real competitive tough spot.

On the other, sadder hand, many folks in our community—especially women and people of color—still don’t feel seen or understood or represented by those plays.

You can read the rest of these interviews on The Arts Fuse!

Arts Fuse Review: A.B. Yehoshua's "Hand in Hand Together"

Sorry for the long silence on the blog. As you will see from the next couple of posts, I have been writing, just not here.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of Israeli playwright A.B. Yehoshua's Hand in Hand Together. The play was presented as a reading by Israeli Stage, whose founder and artistic director, Guy Ben-Aharon directed and provided the translation. The play told the tale of a series of 1934 meetings between Labor Zionist (and later Israeli Prime Minister) David Ben-Gurion and Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

While some plays, when translated, become part of the canon of world drama. The experience of this play caused me to question the limits of theatre in translation, especially political theatre when transported from its native environment:

[...] the didactic nature of Hand in Hand Together is a potential obstacle towards a successful staging for a non-Israeli audience. It no doubt plays well when performed in the Knesset, where many elected officials see either one of the protagonist’s as their ideological forebears, or for an audience that is steeped in Israeli history. But to an American audience the distinctions between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky may come off as a purely academic exercise.

This disconnect leads to an important question raised by theater in translation: how should one stage a play outside its home country? Will an American audience be riveted by two men debating about early twentieth-century Zionism? Should it be staged with a nod towards naturalism, or given the importance of its ideological and historical discussions, would the story be best brought to the stage with theatrical effects and puppets used in a Brechtian manner? Perhaps an explanatory dumb show as the heroes debate? Would that self-conscious approach improve the storytelling, or would it be seen as mocking the central conflict? When a play is performed outside of its native country, should the mode of theatrical presentation become another part of the translation?