(The Fool is currently taking a sabbatical to have a sex change operation and work on a show of her/his/its own.)
I’m thinking about the wild difference between face-to-face interactions and mediated ones. At the far end of the spectrum are emails and Facebook posts, then there’s a mid-ground of telephone calls and actual written, posted letters (different from emails because of the lack of instant transmission), and finally there’s the scrum of the Farmer’s Market and the holiday party and the local bar.
My experience is that understanding and empathy and downright friendliness happen better face to face. I’ve arrived at some encounters with a mighty load of irk and found myself finishing with a hearty laugh and a hug, or at least a sense of release.
When we first traveled to Europe, we had been told that the French were arrogant snots. Our first in-depth encounter was with young farmers who rescued us from our broken-down scooter near Nancy, welcomed us into their home, gave us shelter overnight, fixed the damn scooter, and would absolutely not take payment. Ha.
Five generations ago, few people traveled far from their birthplace and communication was sparse and infrequent. Migrants from Europe to the US took leave of their past beloveds and knew they were unlikely to ever hear from them again. If Cousin Jenny slipped up and had a bastard, few would know, and if Grandpa died, it might be a year before anyone on this side of the pond got the word.
But if someone in the village had a disastrously hard childbirth, food appeared and children were cared for and the laundry somehow got done. If Frank got drunk and busted Luke’s jaw, sometimes the community could set things toward an even keel again. Not always—I’m not that naïve—but sometimes.
Now the human population is gushing out new lives beyond our wildest imaginings, Facebook and Twitter are reaching into some very strange places, and Truth is as hard to catch as a feral cat. An unnervingly large number of folks take their pleasure in generating instant hatred at warp speed.
Is it possible to take a step back? Take a good look at the woman sitting at the bottom of the post office steps and actually see her, maybe just smile, maybe give money, or more audaciously, have a human conversation?
The young women trapped in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire knew they weren’t going to make it out alive, but when they jumped toward their death, many of them were holding hands. Touching and seeing and listening isn’t going to rescue us from disaster, if that’s what’s hurtling down the chute, but at least we can hold hands.
I’ve always had a longing to make music, but it’ll never happen. In fifth grade, I took lessons on the cornet, but after a couple of years in the grade school band, I gave it up. In high school, I took singing lessons: I was told I had a beautiful bass-baritone, and my teacher had sung solo with the Met. But I had zilch musicianship and no sense of pitch—rather, I could always tell when I was off but couldn’t tell where to go. In college, I took two half-credit courses in music theory and sight singing, got D’s in both, and gave up a promising career—promising to be non-existent. I found other modes of performance.
It was predictable: I grew up in a household with no music whatever, except Your Hit Parade on TV, and Lawrence Welk. I remember a couple of country-western songs—“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Cool Water”—but those lit no sparks. As a teen I bought Elvis records and Beethoven symphonies, but somehow I never really felt I was listening: I was working to listen. I wanted desperately to be someone who listened to it, whatever it was, and could feel it.
That’s never really changed. Marrying a musician and forcing her into being a composer gave me a few insights. And starting to dance in my fifties offered a new channel of comprehension: if I could move, I could hear and be present in its time. But just sitting there, no.
Yet there’s seepage. In my seventies, I think I’ve become more fluid emotionally, sometimes more volatile, though I’m still very much Iowa-bred. I like to hear acoustic stuff with lyrics out front. I like Steve Reich & Roger Waters & Peter Gabriel. I’ve always been willing to take the ride with Beethoven. I just discovered Mahler last year and go nuts with his fireworks displays: his orchestral virtuosity is such that you expect him to make sausages emerge from the woodwinds. We can afford now to go to the SF Symphony once in a while, and though I’ve refrained from dancing in the aisles, I love it.
My newest thirst-quencher is Shostakovich. Plugged into my iPod at the gym and walking home, I’ve ploughed my way through a bunch of symphonies & quartets, a couple of concerti. Somehow, though knowing only the raw outlines of his difficult life and not really being able, in musical terms, to express what I mean, I feel his presence in his music more than any other composer I’ve ever heard. The rage, the tenderness, the mortality. It would be an enrichment for me to understand the musical technique, but it’s a blessing beyond measure to be enwrapped in the music.
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Those of us in theatre are constantly challenged by the dominance of film. Sure, the film director can spend a year or two on the work, can spend millions, can call on a range of styles, from realism to dream fantasy to vast spectacle, far beyond the feeble reach even of Las Vegas or Broadway theatre. “But,” we say with religious fervor, “we’re live.”
But who cares? True, a circus trapeze artist is infinitely more thrilling than a filmed one: we’re seeing it really happen, and there’s real flesh at risk. But that very presence makes such extremity more problematic in live theatre. Shakespearean duels on stage, the better choreographed they are, the more they take us out of the story’s illusion into mental fuzz: what if the actors make a mistake? how did they learn all those move? The same with nudity: suddenly there’s a disjunction between our sense of the character and our sense of the naked actor.
It’s true, certainly, that in our KING LEAR, there’s a circus-act fascination with its being live: two old actors juggling puppets for an hour and forty minutes, running sound & lights from a laptop, memorizing all those lines — with the sheer chutzpah to force us to watch this grim bloodbath. Amazing.
But is that what we really want? If they’re thinking about how I learned all those lines, are they fully engaged in the story? Is it just a circus act? I love circus acts, but I don’t want to be one.
Yet I can see from our first days of taping for an eventual DVD of the production. Any straight fixed-camera recording