Lord Olivier, who was familiar with each.
More at The Dick Cavett Show
Woo-hoo! It’s the new monthly Arts Express Newsletter, edited by yours truly, and it’s free, free, free!
Think of it as a print extension of the conversation started on our global radio arts magazine, Arts Express, heard on WBAI 99.5 FM in NYC, WBAI.org, and Pacifica affiliates across the country, in Paris, Beijing, and Berlin.
Every month, it’s eight pages of Arts Express goodness, filled with fascinating interviews, top ten film lists, reviews, gossip, film, theatre, book recommendations and more.
Here’s a preview of what’s in our inaugural February issue:
* An extraordinary interview with Bill Wyman, the legendary guitarist for The Rolling Stones.
* Broadcast Film Critics and Women Film Critics Circle reviewer and host Prairie Miller’s Top Ten Films of 2019–and the year’s worst!
* An Arts Express Extra: Jack London’s Preface to The War of the Classes–a supplement to our recent radio performance of London’s powerful essay, “How I Became A Socialist.”
*Plus: The Guest List–our favorite recent guests; The Back Room–news and gossip about WBAI and the Arts Express crew;
*And information about exclusive giveaways and how to win an opportunity to broadcast your own work on the air.
It’s all in the new free Arts Express Newsletter.
To get your free pdf copy every month to your email address, just send an email to ArtsExpressList@gmail.com and put Subscribe in the subject line. We’ll do the rest!
Yesterday, I put a wrap on the fifth year of this blog (put your favorite emoji here), and in keeping with my annual tradition, here are 25 of my favorite posts of the past year created by the Shalblog Industries® team. In no particular order:
The wonderful Mary Murphy reveals Three Secrets, a cat and mouse game, a radio play I wrote for Arts Express on the Pacifica Affiliates across the country.
Click on the triangle above to hear it as broadcast today.
49 Boxes, Bill Cheung, convention, David Kovac, Duvivier, Eric jones, Gaeten Bloom, Genii, Hannibal, Hector Mancha, Jay Johnson, Jim Steinmeyer, John Archer, Jonathan Neal, Lucy Darling, magic, magicians, Michael Chaitlin, Michael Vincent, Nick Diffate, Paul Vigil, Penn & Teller, performance, Piff, Raymond Crowe, Read Chang, Richard Kaufman, Romany, Terry Ward, Tom Gagnon
I was happy last week to spend four days in Orlando, Florida, attending the 2019 Genii Convention. For a comprehensive, contemporaneous, blow-by-blow audio account, click on the triangles below.
Day One: Intro, Tom Gagnon, Paul Vigil, Sara Crasson, Jonathan Neal
Day Two: Michael Chaitlin, Hector Mancha, Jim Steinmeyer, Paul Vigil, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Hector Mancha, Raymond Crowe, Eric Jones
Day Three: Gaeten Bloom, Bill Cheung, Michael Vincent, Hector Mancha, Alexandra Duvivier, Terry Ward, Hannibal, Penn & Teller, Pat Hazell, Jonathan Neal, Gaeten Bloom, Read Chang, Piff the Magic Dragon
Day Four: 49 Boxes, Eric Jones, Gaeten Bloom, Dominique and Alexandra Duvivier, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Romany, David Kovac, Jay Johnson, John Archer, Summing up
Monday morning, The Jets, The Sharks, Tony, Maria, and Anita get ready for the big night. Lucky them to have the Bernstein/Sondheim music to prepare to. Still the best score from an American musical in my opinion.
Thanks to YouTuber John Long
I like the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein very much, but it’s the Richard Rodgers songs written with Lorenz Hart that I appreciate the most.
Hart’s lyrics were always several notches more interesting than those of the usual love song; he was always exploring a different side of love in each song.
“Where or When” is one of my favorites with its evocative lyrics. Brian d’Arcy James and Susan Egan do the honors.
Thanks to YouTuber fschnell
Steve Spill is at it again—writing that is, and his books just keep getting better and better. It’s a shame that the title Lost Inner Secrets is taken, because this book is that. No, it’s not going to tell you where to put your left pinky when (at least not too much), but it’s a book that could supercharge a performance from just competent to extra special. I can’t imagine a better investment of your magic time than reading this book.
Steve’s recent retirement from daily performance at his Magicopolis venue, interestingly, has put Steve in a different frame of mind; you can feel it in his writing. There’s still the same love of humor, magic, and people—still plenty of funny jokes—but there’s something else this time around, something deeper, more philosophical…wiser. With his new perspective, he gets at what the real essentials are in this performing art.
To my knowledge, what Steve talks about here just isn’t available in magic writing anywhere else: the information within comes only with the repetition of thousands of performances. It’s about hard-won expertise that is deep in the performer’s bones. And it’s not easy to articulate it without a lot of self-awareness and self-reflection. Reading, I felt I had a privileged view watching from the backstage wings, thinking: Oh, that’s what he’s doing, that’s how he’s getting that laugh. that’s how he’s making rapport with the audience, that’s why he does that move then. If you’re reading this, you probably have shelves of magic books with tricks and sleights; you likely have near warehouses full of magic equipment. Those are not going to make you a better magician at this point. Leave them alone for now. Pick up this book. It will tell you what you don’t know about performing, and will never know, unless you’ve performed as many times as Steve Spill has.
Steve starts off with persona. A magician, he explains, doesn’t have to be relaxed and carefree—but s/he has to give that impression. Magic is an aggressive art at bottom; there’s always the iron fist in the velvet glove. It takes a lot of time to find the right balance of mystery and playfulness to keep an audience from feeling abused. “It’s important,” says Spill, that magicians “not take themselves so seriously that audiences feel beaten over the head by the performer. I think a cultivated casualness is an antidote to the oft-perceived pomposity that comes with fooling people, and that can help whatever you do become more viewer-friendly.” And, a bonus of such apparent casualness: “Performing without a lot of affectation can conceal methods, and presents everything that’s said and done as something brought about without laboriousness.”
“Cultivated casualness” is a wonderful phrase and Spill goes on to explain exactly how to cultivate that casualness and how to use it to the performer’s advantage. First, there is a terrific section on improvising, which is unlike any other advice on improv that I’ve seen. As Steve points out, the improvisation techniques that a comedy magician needs to learn (and really the techniques here are good for all magicians, not just those committed to comedy) are different from the techniques that one learns in a theater improv class. Simply put, an actor works with other trained improv actors, but a magician is largely exchanging banter with audience members who are untrained. Steve gives you techniques that make those interactions wittier, funnier and more engaging. I practiced his exercises for a single day, and I was already faster on my feet with other people. This chapter alone will improve performances greatly. It’s a real gift.
Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to comedy tags. Wait, I know—Dammit, Jim, I’m a magician, not a comedian! Okay, okay. But you know what?—Steve is giving you ready-made callbacks here, and if you play your comedic cards right, four or five-time callbacks. Even if you’re not a comedy magician, only the most dour of performance personas would find these suggestions out of character. Short of some Bizarre Magic approach (and maybe even then) humor almost always lifts a performance.
On to a chapter about doing magic for teens. As someone who’s worked with teens as an educator for many decades, I’ll tell you this: Steve Spill understands and appreciates the way teens think and act. He is exactly right about how to approach them. He gives not only a general approach, but also some very specific bits that work and carry him through a show. I like that Steve Spill likes teens. And oh yeah, if you don’t know how to deal with teens who love their cellphones—and they all do—once again, Steve comes to the rescue with both general and very specific advice.
Steve ends this section with some disarmingly frank advice about playing the long game:
Being a pro may be a labor of love, but is labor nonetheless. It is a job. Usually it is a fun job, but not always…Very few in our craft are ever in the position to turn down work. Some jobs are ones you desperately want—others you don’t want, but take just for the payday. In my lifetime I’ve given tens of thousands of performances. Some were great. Most were good. Some were bad. A few were really bad.
And then Steve goes on to say how he saves himself when things go South.
I really should stop the review here, because the book I’ve described so far is worth every penny to a person who repeatedly gets onstage for a living.
But duty says, continue. And it’s not really a duty, it’s a pleasure. Because the second half of the book consists of some wonderful unpublished routines from Steve’s repertoire, with their full scripts. It includes “The Mindreading Goose”—“Not bad for a goose!”; and “Broken Mirror,” a spirit slate routine done without slates, suitable for your favorite spooky holiday; then a lovely sleight of hand interlude done with a Cub Scout neckerchief slide; and a brilliant Torn and Restored routine that can be customized for special occasions. They are all effects that although not overly elaborate can play big and funny for a large audience.
But my favorite routine here is Steve’s version of the Slydini “Paper Balls Over The Head.” The piece should win some kind of award for the most brilliant comedy magic script of the decade. This thing is a comic masterpiece. This is one to bring down the house. Okay, remember what I said about the first half of the book being worth every penny? Forget that. Because for the right person, this script alone is worth every penny. Seriously. It could be a reputation maker.
Overall, the book is bursting at the seams with fantastic performance advice and magic routines. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The icing on the cake is a back cover photo of Dai Vernon that I assure you, will have you laughing out loud.
You’ve got an uncle in the business. His name is Steve Spill, and he’s telling you everything he knows. Thank you, Steve, for one of the most entertaining and useful books of magic I’ve ever read.
You can order it at https://stevespill.com/products/magic-is-my-weed
photo: Joan Marcus
Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.
It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.
It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?
Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.
Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL. He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows. And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty, that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.
Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them. It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.
And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.
This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.
In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement. No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.
Mary Murphy keeps you hanging on the line in her performance of my short comic sketch “At The Sound Of The Tone,”
Click on the triangle above to hear the sketch as broadcast today for Arts Express radio on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.
This month we celebrate the birthday of Herman Melville. He’s best known for his epic Moby Dick, but Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” about a strangely resistant office worker, is a favorite of ours. Though academics have long argued about Bartleby’s meaning, and we could outline our own point of view…we would…prefer…not to.
We hope you enjoy our adaptation and performance, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC.
Click on the triangle above to listen.
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Monday morning, Miss Merman doing what she did best.
Years ago, I was visiting someone in Roosevelt hospital in NYC, and to my surprise, there was Ethel, unpretentiously doing volunteer clerk work.
Thanks to YouTuber Alan Eichler
The entertaining magician and mentalist Gary Ferrar (whose grandfather was a lion tamer) talks with us about his new show of mental illusions called “Nothing Here Is Real.” As a bonus, he performs a mindreading effect directed at yours truly on the air.
You can listen to Gary’s interview and mentalism effect, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
Monday morning, we go legit. If you follow my blog regularly, you might know that this is one of my favorite jazz standards (see here and here and here for other versions). But it was originally written for a Broadway play for two duets with a lush orchestra. Here are two wonderful legit singers, Norm Lewis and the extraordinary Audra McDonald, with their heavenly version.
Thanks to YouTuber Kylie Briggs
Federico Garcia Lorca was an extraordinary poet, painter, composer, actor, director, playwright, and socialist. We celebrated his June birthday on Arts Express today with a short selection of his poems read in English by myself and the wonderful Mary Murphy.
You can hear the poems and a brief intro as broadcast on WBAI 99.5FM NYC by clicking on the grey triangle above.
If you ever done any theater improv, you know that the art and craft of making things up on the spot is a tricky one to master. The imperative is always to deal with what is happening in your environment at that very moment—to accept what’s in front of you and then embellish and extend. It’s always tempting to speed ahead in your mind, rather than trust that if you just follow your way from moment to moment to moment, you’ll get to where you need to go.
It was with delight that I read the following about musical improvisation in Anita O’Day‘s autobiography High Times, Hard Times (a wonderful portrait of a giant of jazz song). The parallels to theater improv were immediately recognizable. I had never heard anyone talk about musical improvisation the way she does. In the following paragraph she writes about how she learned to improvise on a melody by being committed to staying in the moment, and using any cues in her environment she could at that fleeting instant to spur her imagination:
“I saved ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ as an encore. At the point where the bridge comes to the second chorus, i needed an idea from somewhere. I saw a polka dot blouse. So I developed that chorus as a bagful of polka dots. To keep the version going, I searched for ideas. Where was I going to get my inspiration? I looked around the room and that gave me the idea of singing the structure of the room—long wall, short wall, long wall, short wall. That gave me the frame for the chorus. I turned to the band. Five men. So I put it into five rhythm. Anything that I could get an idea from, I put to work to fill out my time on the stand. I did it that way because technically I was not knowledgeable about music. I needed to get the thought behind the sound going, and I took it from wherever I could get it. In all, I did twelve choruses of “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” and when I finished the place exploded. People shouted, stampeded, applauded, whistled, stood on their chair and cheered. It was the response you dream about…”
Thought and action at the speed of sound. Just thrilling.
Anita O’Day with a great version of a great song.
Oscar Peterson – piano
Herb Ellis – guitar
Ray Brown – double bass
John Poole – drums
Thanks to YouTuber jburidan
At this year’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam, where all 154 sonnets are performed, because of no-shows, producer Melinda Hall unexpectedly pressed some of us into double duty bound; in addition to performing our pre-arranged sonnets (mine was Sonnet 27) we performed other sonnets as well, with fifteen minutes notice.
And that is how I became acquainted with Sonnet 126. Here’s what I saw when the paper was handed to me:
If this looks strange to you, you’re on the right track. It looks very different from all the other Shakespeare sonnets. As you probably know if you’re reading this, the Shakespearean sonnets are three quatrains of alternating rhyme, and then a final couplet to make fourteen lines. Now take a look at Sonnet 126—first of all it’s only twelve lines long—the last two lines seem to have been truncated—and what’s more the remaining lines are all couplets. It barely deserves to be called a sonnet. And, to my way of thinking, the content of it is more pessimistic than most of Shakespeare’s other sonnets.
Ever-reliable Wikipedia tells us that Sonnet 126 is the capstone to the group of sonnets known as the Fair Youth sonnets. As a group they speak of a young man of sexual power who, despite the ravages of time, will live on—either through his immortalization in the poet’s words, or through the siring of offspring. Sonnet 126 is the last of this group, but it appears to tell a somewhat different story: our Fair Youth might think, even as he gets older, that he is cheating Nature and Time in his pursuit of worldly pleasures, but it is all for naught. In the end, Time demands his due, despite Nature’s endowing the Youth with potency even in his later years—no, Nature must eventually render thee; that is, surrender him, as money paid in debt. Indeed, the end comes so suddenly, it can even come two lines too early. We have run out of Time.
It’s a bleaker outlook than many of the other sonnets. While Shakespeare never denies the inevitability of death in his writings, it is rare that he wags it so forcefully in the face of his sonnet subjects without some promise of remembrance. There’s a palpable jealousy there of the youth’s enduring power. There doesn’t seem to be a chance of redemption.
And yet, hidden within the last words is a double meaning that seems kinder. For the word render not only means “to surrender,” but also “to depict,” as in the rendering of a portrait. Nature may not only surrender him to Time, but will portray him. So once again, the Fair Youth has the opportunity of becoming immortal through his children or through Shakespeare’s rendering of him in his poems.
And so he has.
The wonderfully versatile singer, actor, and songwriter Nellie McKay spoke with us a while back, following her engagement at Birdland in New York City. You can listen to the interview as broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC by clicking on the little triangle above.