The Man With Fifteen Faces


I’ll let the Smithsonian Folklife website describe this extraordinary five-minute performance:

“The mysterious art of bian lian or face-changing originated in Sichuan Opera, and has long been a closely guarded secret of Chinese performers. Hu Dongxiao of the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe performed the most complex style of face-changing at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, switching between colored masks that represent different emotions in a dramatic story.”

Western magicians will smile at the breakaway fan used in the middle of the performance. As for the how of the instantaneous face-changing? No clue.

Click on the video to play; this one is best at full screen, which you can access by clicking on the lower right hand corner of the video.



Look through Paul Simon’s rainbow-tinted glasses on a pre-digital photography Monday. What a clever lyric! In Simon’s best work he combines a strong musical riff with an evocative scenario, specific enough to trigger memories, yet vague enough to allow the listener to fill in the gaps with his or her own experiences.

Thanks to YouTuber atimetoremember

Final Exam


A first artistic mentor can be like a first love. Everything seems new, extraordinary, larger than life. Your brain, body, soul, emotions are expanding so rapidly that you endow the other with superhuman powers, even if on looking back, you understand that what you had been exposed to were, perhaps, the usual lessons of life. Nonetheless, memories are formed and the lessons learned take on an importance that stay on, years later.

The following story came to my mind today, of a day many years ago that made a large impact on me. It didn’t even directly involve me, but it was something I witnessed. I had just performed a scene in my college acting class with my scene partner,  a talented young woman named Dena. We had a wonderful teacher, Lloyd Richards, not only an excellent acting teacher, but one of the finest teachers I have ever had for any subject. Dena was a very good actor, probably the most accomplished in the class, but on this day, after class, she was very upset about something. She went up to Lloyd, and she was obviously a little shaken and embarrassed, and said to him, “I had this awful dream last night. I dreamt that I was having a big argument with you, and I was telling you that every thing that you’ve ever taught us about acting was completely and utterly wrong.”

And Lloyd, whose physical manifestation was similar to a plump Buddha, with great repose and a Cheshire Cat grin, replied, “Congratulations, Dena. You’ve just passed the class.”

Click on the video above for more of Lloyd Richards and Chekhov’s advice.

In the Beginning…


I’m not a big fan of “story” magic, but this close-up magic piece by Dr. Hiroshi Sawa with shells and sand is very charming. The conception and execution are really lovely. Click on the video above to watch.

One More Parade: Phil Ochs


December 19th was, jarringly, the 75th anniversary of the birth of folk singer Phil Ochs. Jarringly, because Phil, who died too soon, seemed to be the embodiment of youthful energy, creativity, and rebellion. His songs decrying the United States of War sound as fresh and pointed now as they did back then. The song above, co-written with Bob Gibson, is on Phil’s first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing.

Monday’s child trumps off to war yet once more.

My Grown-Up Christmas List: Liz Callaway






Every year the gracious David Kenney, who hosts the WBAI radio program Everything Old is New Again (WBAI 99.5 FM NYC and, Sunday nights, 9-11pm), produces a smashing cabaret fundraiser for the station.  Last year,  the amazing Liz Callaway sang her version of My Grown-Up Christmas List and knocked it out of the park. You can hear her every-word-counts performance by clicking on the grey triangle above.

And if you want to hear the performances of the wonderful line-up of guests that David has for this year’s fundraiser, including Julie Budd and Mark Nadler, tune into his show this week and next.

Who Can I Turn To?


At one time, Anthony Newley was a huge star. Before he was 35 years old, he acted in, directed, and wrote the words* and music to two smash Broadway musical plays, Stop the World—I Want to Get Off!,  and The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. Many of the songs from those two musicals became standards: “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “Who Can I Turn To?” were covered by hundreds of singers. Newley used to enjoy saying that if he had never done anything else in his life, he could make a good living from the residuals of “What Kind of Fool Am I?” alone.

When he left the stage, he became a kind of parody of himself, as he played the Las Vegas venues, a glorified lounge singer. He never matched the heights of  his earlier years, and the memory of his success has faded over the years. But as you can see in the clip above from the Ed Sullivan show, Newley in his prime was one of the most distinctive, eccentric, talented, and influential artists of the 1960s. Click on the video to see a quintessential Newley performance.

Thanks to YouTuber gmulvein

*Reader Sandra Nordgren wrote in to correct us that it was Leslie Bricusse who wrote the words to the songs. Thanks, Sandra.

Cuteness Alert!


Some time ago, I posted a video that showed dogs reacting to magic, but the orangutan in the above 30 second video has got to be the best magic audience of all time. The most delightful magic video of the year!

Thanks to YouTuber Viral Tainment

Mix and Match


Sometimes when I tell people that I’m writing a novel they ask, where do you get your characters from?  Is character X in your story actually person Y in your (somewhat more) real life? Did this really happen? Which character is supposed to be you?  Am I in it? And so on.

So I thought I’d talk a little bit about character. As always, I’m only speaking for myself. I’m sure there are many writers who don’t do what I do at all.

First off, I want to be able to recognize the characters I read and write about. Now, I grant that this is just a personal preference; but I don’t think I would ever want to write a book that takes place on the planet Zaurus and concerns the Great War between the Alliots and the Beloggotians. The advice about writing that I have taken to heart the most is this, by Grace Paley: write about what you don’t know about what you do know.

Now this is very different from: write about what you know. That charge may be fine for non-fiction, but for a novel I feel that if I know everything about it beforehand, and I’m not discovering anything new as I go along, then there’s a good chance that the reader will also find it predictable, and that’s not interesting at all.

On the other hand, my charge is not just to write some random nonsense, a string of words put together. If I’m going to bring some kind of revelation to the reader, then what I hope for most is that in the act of writing, my conscious plan will become subverted, and the beak of my unconscious will crack through the egg of my surprised will.

An example. A while back, I was slogging through my day’s idea for my current novel, and it was really tough. But then it turned out that one of my characters was going to bed, falling sleeping in the same room as his brother, and all of a sudden, a whole flood of memories of sharing a bedroom with my brother came rushing through me: I realized that this was a whole section of my life that I had never really explored before, but something of the truth of my life. The relationship of the brothers in the novel could be revealed in that one little scene. Those night time experiences had been incredibly important to me, but I had never really looked hard at them before. All of a sudden, I began to ask: What was it like, really, to go to sleep in the same room as my brother, night after night? What was it like for my brother? What was the importance of that relationship at night? How did it form who we were? More concretely, what were the sounds, words, rituals, shadows?

Now I am not saying that my brother or I am in this novel. We’re not at all— that would be uninteresting. I’m a very boring person. That’s not the way it works. What I’m doing instead, on a primarily unconscious level, is taking different parts of relationships  and pieces of my life and putting them together, like those mix and match flip flap books I had when I was a child. Do you remember them? They had five or six faces that were cut horizontally in thirds and then you could flip the separate sections so that you could create a new face with one person’s hair, another’s eyes and nose, and another’s mouth and chin. Composites. You take different truths and pieces of imagination and then mix them up in new and compelling ways.

What’s interesting about the truth in fiction or acting is that you don’t have to have the complete truth to establish the reality of a character or a scene. A drop of cream in the coffee, as Lee Strasberg once said, is enough to change the nature of the coffee. In acting, as in writing, you pour out different drops of yourself and other people which you know to be true, and then you stir and combine those aspects in new ways. In that sense, every character is unique, but every character is also one’s self. So each brother in the example above contains parts of myself and others, but where the characters truly come alive is when I put them into a situation and watch how they handle it.  I rarely know beforehand what will happen, but I try to focus on what I don’t know about what I do know about the situation and the characters. That’s where the juicy part is.

So, yes, you’re all in it, and no, none of the characters are you.