acting, Borges, Everything and Nothing, Melinda Hall, performance, poem, poetry, Shakespeare, Shakespeare Sonnet Slam, Shakespeare's Birthday Sonnet Slam, sonnet, Sonnet Slam, theater, theatre, writing
Today is Shakespeare’s birthday. If you’ve never read it, this very short story about Shakespeare by Borges comes closest to describing the man who I imagine WS to be.
I had the pleasure two days ago of participating in the 7th Annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. It was a drizzly, misty day that made all of Central Park look like a French Impressionist painting. The producers told us that if it rained hard, we would simply continue and gather up the audience to join us up on the outdoor bandshell stage in Central Park. It never happened, but it was a cozy thought to think about.
This was my fourth Sonnet Slam, so I knew what to expect. All 154 sonnets are read in about three hours. Producer Melinda Hall has a very democratic approach to the slam, and it’s fun to see the way professionals and non-professionals alike approach performing the sonnets. One reader brought her dog up with her, and another set her sonnet to music. Each year brings some surprise guests, and this year veteran actor Richard Thomas made an unannounced visit to read Sonnet 29, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…” It’s also always fun for me to hear others perform the sonnets to which I had been assigned in previous years. I feel a kind of special bond with those particular readers even if I’ve never met them before, because I can appreciate the struggle that goes into wrestling with those shared sonnets.
I’ve written about analyzing a sonnet before, but based on what I’ve learned this time, I’d humbly like to make a few suggestions about performing sonnets. These suggestions may seem sonnet-specific, but I believe they have wider acting implications as well.
The first thing is this, and it’s not as minor as it may sound at first: You have to pay allegiance to the final couplet’s rhyme. In the rest of the sonnet, the interpretation can spread over line breaks and rhymes, but if you don’t hit the rhymes in the final couplet, there is a real sense of incompleteness for the listener. It’s like a piece of music without the final resolving chord; the rest of the sonnet can be performed beautifully, but if you don’t get the final rhyme stressed, you haven’t closed the deal. Rhyme, even at the expense of sense or archaic pronunciation. (“Love” doesn’t rhyme with “prove” anymore? It doesn’t matter. Make it rhyme in your performance.) Go for the rhyme.
The second thing to remember is that the vast majority of these sonnets are love poems. They are meant, in the end, to win the heart of someone special. So while actors are wont to build little mini-dramas of the sonnets—not a bad thing—it should be remembered too that objectives such as to woo, to praise, to kiss, to seduce, to reassure, to flatter, should take precedence over objectives such as to scold, to complain, to dismiss, to chastise. Not that there aren’t elements of the latter, but in the end, the sonnets are love poems and should end up that way. So humor and self-reflection about the more negative aspects of love are in order, even though the anger may seem flashier to perform.
Finally, make every noun, metaphor, verb as visual and specific as you can for yourself. It’s Acting 101, but it’s especially true in playing Shakespeare that one should not lapse into the generic meaning of the words. The first line from Sonnet 70 should suffice to illustrate:
“That thou be blamed, shall not be thy defect.”
“Thou”: Who am I talking about? What does that person look like? What is my relationship to that person? Where are we?
“Blamed”: Blamed for what? In what manner? By whom? To what end?
“Thy defect”: What form might that defect take? How has this affected my lover? How has it affected our relationship? What do I want to do about it?
And so on. The wonderful thing about the fourteen short lines of a sonnet is that they allow you to do this kind of close work without getting overwhelmed. The important thing that I learned for myself here is that it’s not enough to make intellectual choices, but to pick vivid images that will spur feelings and imagination. Make the metaphor real.
Well, one more nice thing about Shakespeare’s birthday is that it comes around every year, and if the producers so wish, so will the next Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam. So if you’re in the NYC area next year, consider signing up in April for one of the sonnets at http://www.shakespearesonnetslam.com . You will have a wonderful time.
The past few months I’ve been enjoying a number of magic books, old and new, which I’d like to share with you.
First is St. George’s Hall: Behind the Scenes at England’s House of Mystery by Anne Davenport and John Salisse. This is a fairly specialized book, but it’s very well done. It’s a history of the London theater venue run by several generations of Maskelynes, starting with the patriarch, J.N. Maskelyne, in partnership with the magician David Devant from 1905 – 1935. Devant of course, along with Nevil Maskyelene, wrote one of the seminal books about the theory of conjuring called Our Magic. That book was unique in that it understood that conjuring was part of the theatrical arts, but at the same time also had its own particular requirements. Devant and Maskelyne, perhaps more than anybody before or since, delineated just how the magician should best walk that fine line between theatrical narrative and conjuring necessity. St. George’s Hall makes clear with its extensive details and photos of thirty years of St. George’s entertainments, that the theory of Our Magic was borne out of hard struggle and daily practical knowledge of what worked and didn’t work. Many of the entertainments were short plays centered around an illusion that Maskelyne or Devant had created and worked into some fantastical plot. The most surprising thing in the book for me were the photos of Devant in the various costumes for his plays; it is clear from the variety of characters and make-ups that he used that he was as interested in the techniques of acting as he was of those of conjuring, and saw them both as allied arts.
I like the idea of having little magic pamphlets to read on a subway ride, and recently I came across an old pamphlet called Bunny Bill. The booklet by Robert Neale is an easy to follow origami project that teaches you how to fold a dollar bill into the shape of a top hat. When you squeeze the sides of the hat, out pops a little paper rabbit. It’s all done with one bill without any cuts, tears or tape. Cuteness factor is high, and children enjoy it.
Magician Dai Vernon was the greatest influence on close-up magic in the twentieth century, and for over 25 years, Vernon contributed a column to Genii Magazine called The Vernon Touch. His columns have all been collected in a compilation also called The Vernon Touch, brought out by Rickard Kaufman. The Vernon Touch had an extraordinary run considering that Vernon was in his seventies when he began the column, and he was over ninety when he contributed his last one. Much of the column was devoted to his reports on the scene at The Magic Castle, where he was in residence. Lots of history and anecdotes, along with many insights into the Vernon conception of magic, but I liked the photos the best, many not published before, of Vernon with his fellow magicians, and Vernon’s Harlequin and Chinese acts. If you subscribe to Genii you can purchase the book at a bargain price.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to be involved with the proofreading of a wonderful book of card magic called The Devil’s Staircase by Greg Chapman. Fans of that book will be very happy to learn that Mr. Chapman is about to release a new book of card magic, kind of a companion piece to TDS, called Details of Deception. It’s an excellent title, because in this book Chapman focuses on the fine details of what makes a sleight, and a performance of card magic, deceptive. As in the last book, most of the material is gambling-themed, but a careful reading of the book will be highly instructive for any intermediate-to-advanced card worker. There are some excellent memorized deck effects, poker demonstrations, an extensive section on estimation with information which to my knowledge has never seen print before, and a large chapter on the second deal which gives detailed instructions of how to do several kinds of push-off seconds, along with some killer tricks that utilize the sleight. While most of the effects are difficult—the ability to do three perfect faros in some routines is taken as a given—there are a few effects for the mere mortals among us, including a very clever ACAAN routine. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking to improve your card magic, if you’re a memdeck guy or gal, or if you just want to see how deeply a guy like Chapman can think about card magic.
I have not written a real letter for over thirty years. A real letter—not a condolence card, a thank-you note, or an email.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. There are those of generations after mine who have never written a letter or received one. More, not been part of the whole process of letter writing. A letter is not just the object itself and its container— the envelopes, enclosures and clippings, circled pieces of newspapers, glitter, stickers, ink smudges, stationery—“-er-” like “pap-er,”—little 2×3 photos, scrawled identification on the back—but also the whole rhythm and trust of back and forth, the framing of communication in bursts of captured time, even as time passes.
And pass it does. Or did. Now, there is no time, for we can access anyone, anytime, instantly. We see the whole of the universe like a map before us, able to point our finger to any star. But then, time existed, meant something in human terms. Waiting, for example. We knew that even as we were writing that it wouldn’t be received for days, maybe weeks, and who knows when we could get the reply to our comments, our bits of news, our declarations, our entreaties, our losses? What to do, in the meantime, while waiting, was a real issue. How different our lives were. Now our communication is nearly all in almost-real time: over Skype, over text, over email. There is no anticipation anymore, what we see is what we get, albeit screen-mediated: if not now, then never.
The letter reminded us of this essential fact: there are gaps in our perception of the lives of the other. The hard thing in human relationship is to assimilate the fact of mutual change, how both of us are always changing, have changed.The continuity of modern communication lulls us into a false familiarity. But when waiting two weeks for a letter’s reply and two weeks for the reply to the reply, one can rightly wonder whether the person on the other end is still the same and knowable.
I was set thinking about this by a Denise Levertov poem, “Writing to Aaron,” which I read recently with a group of friends. In the poem, the narrator struggles to find a way to respond to a letter that she has taken too long to answer. The narrator understands that with each passing day, the gap between who we were and who we are is growing greater and greater. In those letter-writing days that awareness fostered in us a kind of responsibility, an obligation to answer in a timely manner. If you didn’t, then there was the double problem of not knowing how to explain your tardiness, and the fear that the person to whom you were responding may have changed beyond all recognition. And for the more literary of us there was still another fear: it was too easy for us to fall in love with our own writing, so at times we wrote to and for ourselves, rather than to and for the person whose name we put on the envelope.
Faced with this, the letter-writer must develop methods of how to talk about the gap, how to talk about all that has occurred in the time that has passed, and equally how to talk about what will happen until the next communication occurs.
Levertov’s narrator suggests several strategies. Her narrator considers just putting the dry facts of change up front, then rejects that plan as inadequate, the external facts don’t account for the internal ones:
“…Which beginning to begin with? ‘Since I saw you last,
the doctor has prescribed artificial tears, a renewable order…’ But that leaves out
the real ones.”
She also considers a chronological narrative, but too much time has passed, and that too would be inadequate, too much to tell in too little space:
“Or chronological narrative? ‘In the spring
of ’73,’…’That summer,’
‘By then it was fall…’
All or nothing—
and that would be nothing,”
So this too is inadequate. She finally thinks that perhaps she can only bridge the gap by calling upon a shared memory, hoping the recipient can fill in the rest.
“Maybe I’ll leave the whole story
for you to imagine,
telling you only, ‘A year ago
I said farewell to that poplar you will remember,
that gave us its open secret…”
After reading this poem, I started to imagine myself writing a letter. This act of imagination sent me to a place, a consciousness, in which I hadn’t been in a long time. I felt myself in an intimacy before I had even written down a word. I rebelled, I wanted to write an email. It requires so much less of one. A letter is an act of intimacy and truth, and I haven’t the emotion anymore for that. To see my own scrawl of a handwriting in ink, on paper? Too naked, too unseemly, at this age. I don’t even write down a shopping list anymore.
But what I can’t get away from is how excited my poetry friends, Connie, Evelyn, Teresa, and I got talking about letters, the thrill of pages double-sided leafed through again and again, folded and re-folded, stuck in pockets and books to take out on a windy bus-waiting day, or found years later, at the bottom of the untouched stuck drawer, the ink a witness to the truth of that moment, because I’m looking at your handwriting and I’m deciphering the distance and time that separates us but joins us, as if some part of your presence were truly here in this paper in this time, with these words, in this letter.
This is what we talked about Sunday, and I don’t know that I can bear to write one more letter.
(You can view Denise Levertov’s poem by clicking here: https://www.questia.com/read/93938346/life-in-the-forest and doing a bit of navigating.)
Monday, Phil looking back at us, singing a song inspired by Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie.
“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”–The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
“Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.”—Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie
Thanks to YouTuber HiddenFormula
A group of friends and I have been recently reading Shakespeare’s delightful comedy, Love’s Labours Lost. My antenna immediately pricked up at the following lines:
Villain, thou shalt fast for thy offenses ere thou be pardoned.
Well, sir, I hope when I do it I shall do it on a full stomach.
Thou shalt be heavily punished.
I am more bound to you than your fellows, for they are but lightly rewarded.
Take away this villain, shut him up.
Come, you transgressing slave, away.
Let me not be pent up, sir; I will fast, being loose.
No, sir, that were fast and loose; thou shalt to prison.
Shakespeare cleverly packs in multiple puns here. First Armando declares that the clown Costard shall have to fast in prison. But Costard replies that, “I will fast, being loose”—that is, he’ll be able to run more quickly, if only he were free. And Moth tops both of them, saying that Costard’s scheme is “fast and loose”: that is, a scam, akin to a contemporaneous con game, commonly called “Fast and Loose.” He’s saying Costard’s proposal is a scam. But with even more complexity, simultaneously, there’s an additional pun on the phrase “fast and loose,” because it also means “in an irresponsible manner,” as in the phrase, “playing fast and loose with the truth.” And indeed, Costard plays fast and loose with the truth.
But what is of interest right now to this blog is the con game. Fast and Loose is a scam that’s been around for a very long time in one form or another. I had the strange pleasure a few weeks ago of seeing one of my immigrant high school students trying to extract money from his classmates using this ruse. I had to intervene and warn the student that I knew exactly what he was up to.
It’s always best to learn from an expert cheat, so you can click on the video above and watch the expert magician and historian of confidence games, Ricky Jay, demonstrate just what the scam looks like to its pigeons.
Thanks to YouTuber trancehi
The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.
I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.
I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.
Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.
So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”
In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.
But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.
The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.
A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.
Last week I posted Part One of my interview with Jodi Dean, author of the thought-provoking new book, Crowds And Party. You can hear that first half of the interview here.
Now, here is Part Two, the second half of my interview, which was broadcast on WBAI radio’s Arts Express program yesterday. In this part, Jodi Dean talks about the problems with The New Left and Identity Politics; the anarchist/socialist split; the various critiques of the party formation and the rebuttal of those critiques; and why she thinks parties are the only way forward for those who would seek to upend capitalism.
Click on the grey triangle above to hear Part Two.
Crowds and Party by Jodi Dean is a fascinating must read for anyone interested in how political change happens, and what the left must do now. In this book, Professor Dean talks about those “beautiful moments” that have happened throughout history—think The Paris Commune and Occupy Wall Street—where The Crowd has created a disruption in the usual fabric of capitalist society. But those “beautiful moments” are short-lived, ephemeral, and seem to disappear into forgotten hope. How can a movement hold onto and build on these precious historical moments? Jodi Dean tackles crowd theory and the concept of a working people’s political party, reviews the relevant literature, and presents her analysis in her new book, Crowds and Party.
The book is not always easy reading, so I was happy to have the opportunity to engage in a spirited conversation with Professor Dean, broadcast on WBAI 99.5 FM NY radio yesterday on the Arts Express program. Dean was so interesting that we decided to do two parts to the interview, broadcast one week after the other.
You can listen to Part One by clicking on the grey triangle above.