Friday, December 1, 2017

Goodbye SLR

I haven’t written about photography in a while and I think that’s because of the stage in my life and the encroachment (or more accurately, the replacement) of the SLR with the smart phone.  There was the time in my life that I’d pack my Nikon SLR, lenses as well, when I traveled or felt like going on a local photographic sojourn.  No doubt I used to take it more seriously, although I was never a professional like my father.  I had my own darkroom some 40 years ago and did a lot of black and white photography, gravitating to idiosyncratic subjects, but always one eye on the prosaic, scenes we just take for granted in everyday life. 

A New York Times article about a Stephen Shore exhibition at the MoMA reminds me of the kind of photography I liked as an amateur, never serious enough to fully give myself over to photography as an art.  As years went by I did more of what everyone did, photographing the kids as they grew up, family occasions, trips that we took, allowing what ever existed of an artistic eye to mostly atrophy. 

Now, I never go anywhere with my SLR and although I’ve invested in a digital camera that can practically replicate everything an SLR can do, even that rarely goes with me unless I want telephoto capability, usually only on trips.  The smart phone has changed everything and now I find myself taking more sunrise and sunset and landscape and nature photography with it, sometimes mindlessly posting them on Twitter.

But I read about Stephen Shore’s career and wonder what could have been (Stephen Shore’s MoMA Survey Shows a Restless Reformer as a Master of Photography). I was particularly intrigued by the NYT’s observation that “he produced suites of photographs, shaped by a single principle, which pictured anodyne Americana in impassive repetition.”  Yes, that could have been what I was aspiring to do but have long since abandoned.

In that article you can see his photograph “Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975.”  It depicts a commonplace street scene in which Chevron and Texaco gas stations are conspicuous.  Although unremarkable, it’s remarkable.  The last time I toted my SLR was on a trip we took to the Southwest about ten years ago, and I took some photos of “anodyne Americana,” my favorite being a gas station along Route 66:

But there are others in the same region, and of other pieces of Americana captured on that trip such as a political rally advertised at a local diner…

The infinite stretch of Route 66 and freight trains running alongside….

Or the side of a garage in Arizona…

I wonder what could have been if photography was my vocation, but I had a publishing career and a family life to lead and now the rest is history.  So now my iPhone photographs are usually scenes outside my home or in my neighborhood. These still makes me feel connected to my photographic roots (my father’s commercial photography business established by my great grandfather in 1866). 

Here are some posted on Twitter or some just recently taken:

And here I’ll sneak in a personal shot, Thanksgiving buffet at our house showing the two cooks, our friend Sydelle and my wife Ann, taken, of course, with the iPhone. 

Plus, my favorite sunset shot, taken with one of the early digital cameras, a Sony Mavica, at a Block Island dock perhaps twenty + years ago, three men silhouetted in the foreground…

Adios SLR

Cameras I Have Known

Friday, November 24, 2017

‘Billy and Me’ by Terry Teachout to Premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Tom Wahl and Nicholas Richberg
as William Inge and Tennessee Williams

Those fortunate enough to be in the West Palm Beach area will have a unique theatre opportunity beginning Dec. 8th.  Palm Beach Dramaworks is mounting the world premiere of a play by Terry Teachout, Billy and Me, in which he has imagined a tempestuous friendship between two of our most renowned twentieth century playwrights, Tennessee Williams and William (Billy) Inge.  This is a major step in the maturation of PBD under the creative direction of its Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes.  His vision has been to supplement the company’s acclaimed classics by also producing completely original works from the very beginning through numerous rewrites, collaborations, rehearsals and eventually onto the PBD stage, and even beyond, to New York and as a staple of regional theaters throughout the U.S.

Billy and Me is a memory play narrated by Tennessee Williams.  Act I is set in a gay bar in Chicago on New Year’s Eve, 1944, immediately after a pre-Broadway tryout of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.    Williams is on the ascent in Act I, but Inge is an unhappy theatre critic as well as miserable in his personal life.  Seeing The Glass Menagerie that night has inspired Inge to try his hand at play writing.  Act II takes place almost 15 years later at Inge's Sutton Place apartment, a few hours after the Broadway premiere of his first flop, A Loss of Roses.  Inge has had years of hits, is at the height of his career (and prosperity), while Williams’ decline was already underway.  Inge is having difficulty reconciling himself to his first flop as well as his closeted sexuality.

William Hayes
According to Hayes, who is directing Billy and Me and was the inspiration for the play, “the genesis of the idea was while I was directing Picnic, doing research, and was reminded that Inge met Tennessee Williams in 1944, and I began to imagine the intricacy of their relationship, about which little is really known. They must have influenced one another, I thought. They shared similar backgrounds, both being from small towns, had complicated relationships with their mothers, fathers who were frequently absent as they were salesmen, and both were gay, Williams acknowledging it, but Inge self loathing.”

So Hayes suggested the idea of a play about the two famous playwrights to Terry Teachout who was in town for pre-production meetings for his play Satchmo at the Waldorf, which was playing at the end of the same season as Picnic at PBD.  Teachout was intrigued.  After meeting with Hayes, he flew home when the idea for the structure of the play came to him in an epiphany.  “I even had the 2nd’ act nailed, so I knew I was on solid ground. I called Bill and said ‘I have it!’ and went back to West Palm to meet with Bill and we both agreed that we saw the project in the same way and knew we would work together well. After making my directing debut at PBD last season, I know very well that it's a great place to work, a gorgeous theatre full of first-class people. I also know that Bill is a superb director.”

Terry Teachout
Then soon after the structure was established, Teachout wrote the play in a three day frenzy.  That was more than a year ago and since then it has been “workshopped” by PBD, undergoing revisions.  As Teachout explained, “workshopping is the modern day replacement for out of town tryouts which used to be the norm.”  These workshops have been tirelessly and inspirationally orchestrated by Hayes.

Teachout fills the threadbare historical record of the two playwrights’ personal relationship guided by his knowledge of the men and their plays.  Thus the play is "a work of fiction freely based on fact."  "It's a play about love, jealousy, and - not to put it too pompously - destiny," said Teachout. "An artist is a person who can't do anything else with his life. Art is his fate: it's that or nothing. But he can't become an artist until he accepts that fate and acknowledges his true nature. That's a big part of what this play is about: the struggle of two great American playwrights to come to terms with who they really were."

I asked him about the difficulties he had in writing the play and he responded “nothing excites an artist more than limitations that must be surmounted and the problem with depicting Inge is how do you warm up to him? How do you make him relatable? But having reviewed more than 1,000 theatrical performances in my career taught me much about how a play works, how you have to make difficult decisions about when action starts and stops.” 

There are three actors in the play.  Two of them have been with the play ever since the first workshop production, Nicholas Richberg who plays Tennessee Williams, and Tom Wahl as William Inge.  Joining those two about half way through the developmental process is veteran PBD actor Cliff Burgess, who plays three roles.

Nicholas Richberg has been involved in several developmental plays, mostly with Zoetic Stage, but he says this experience was “my longest development process, a huge gift to an actor. Terry is the writer, but it allows the actors to contribute and shape it and it’s incredible to see the changes over time.”

Richberg is also an experienced musical performer, appearing in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 1776 last year, and in several Sondheim productions in the past and thinks of both Sondheim and Williams as geniuses in their genres.  He has no preference playing musical or drama as long as he is “interpreting the words /music of the author.”

He sees his biggest challenge in this play is to capture the characteristics of Tennessee Williams – usually well known to the audience because Williams was clearly gay, and granted numerous interviews, some while he was obviously drunk.  Both he and Wahl worked with a dialogue coach to get their speech patterns right and even so,” these are not impersonations” both opined.  But the real challenge goes beyond that Richberg said: “playing a real person, having the audience truly care about him, and what motivated him.”

His favorite line from the play is “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – start with the truth and then make it beautiful.”  And that sort of captures the essence of Teachout’s writing he says, “Making the language beautiful, almost like music, poetic.”

“My one wish as an actor was to play Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and, finally, with Billy and Me, I am in a memory play about Tennessee Williams: it’s as rewarding for an actor as playing Tom.”

Inge is played by Tom Wahl, making his PBD debut. He said “I like the challenge of playing the lesser known (as a public persona) Inge, as I have a free hand in interpreting. I see Inge in a constant struggle, finding himself, starting his career as an actor, turning to teaching, then becoming a critic, and then a playwright, always seeming to being either in the wrong place or in the wrong skin. And when finally he is true to himself, he is disgusted by it.”

Wahl also loved being involved in the workshop experience since the beginning, allowing him to make contributions and growing into his character, the shy, repressed William Inge.  Wahl said “although perhaps better known for his other plays and movies, my favorite is Dark at the Top of the Stairs, his last major play.”  In addition to his extensive acting experience, Wahl is a versatile voiceover artist and voice actor.

Cliff Burgess
Cliff Burgess has appeared in many PBD productions and although he stepped into the developmental process later than the other two actors, he was able to provide some valuable input “through fresh eyes.”  Also as a fledgling playwright himself “the process allowed me to see the director and the playwright in action.”

He plays three characters in the play, the waiter in Act I, the doctor in Act II, and the stage manager in both acts. What he finds fascinating about each is that they are not tangential “as each character has a purpose and each has an impact on Williams and Inge.  I play characters ‘of the more mundane world, and supply some comic relief too.’”

Interestingly, Burgess has played Tom in The Glass Menagerie twice in his career and in Inge’s Bus Stop, so he is intimately familiar with their works, and “I recognize the suffering of each and their humanity.”

Billy and Me “inspired by the friendship between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge,” is Directed by William Hayes, PBD’s Producing Artistic Director.

The playwright, Terry Teachout, is drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, has had an uncommonly diverse career.  He was a professional jazz bassist for eight years, and has also been a dance and music critic, an editorial writer, and a member of the National Council on the Arts.  He has written the libretti for three operas and is the author of numerous books, including Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.  His play Satchmo at the Waldorf was written after the Armstrong biography.

Scenic Design is by Victor Becker, Lighting Design by Paul Black, and Costume Design by Brian O'Keefe.  Billy and Me will grace the stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks on Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, from December 8 to the 31st with previews on December 6 and 7.  

UPDATE:  My Review of the play now posted

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Over and Over Again

I’m sick of watching what has become of our country.  Mass slaughtering reduced to biblical rhetoric of good vs. evil, with responses of tougher immigration laws if the murderer is anyone of middle eastern descent and “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families if the assault is committed by a Caucasian nut job. 

Good vs. evil.  “May God be with you,” offered to the Texas town of the church shootings.  In a church of worship!  Where was God at that moment?  How can these incidents be reduced to the simplistic good vs. evil?

It plays into our psyche of “good guys” coming to the rescue, the rationalization that MORE guns are needed by the “good guys” to offset those carried by the “bad guys.”  Where is the Lone Ranger when you need him?  Even better, Superman!  The Texas Attorney General suggested that churches should consider armed worshipers.  This is a solution?

Let’s get serious about gun control once and for all.  If we had more restrictive gun ownership legislation after the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966, where would we be today?  It has to start sometime, and the moment has arrived to ban assault weapons.  Go a step further and require registration of weapons as we do motor vehicles.  Provide a government cash bounty for anyone turning in an assault weapon for a period of time, no questions asked.  Anyone in possession of such a weapon after the bounty period is breaking the law. 

This does not nullify the 2nd amendment, but it brings it more into alignment with today’s weapon technology which the founding fathers could have never imagined.  If the NRA doesn’t like it, let them own muskets, the weapon of choice when the amendment was enacted.

Our gun violence and lax gun laws are the worst of developed countries. Many other countries just ban gun ownership and their lack of gun violence verses ours reflect that and cultural values as well.

And, please, the false equivalency argument of they’ll use trucks instead, so why shouldn’t we ban trucks is specious (as those who make the argument know).  Any politician who can say that with a straight face ought to be run out of office. But as the Texas massacre takes place on the heels of the horrid truck terrorist attack in Manhattan, NRA apologists are quick to make that facetious case.

Trump responded to the Texas massacre saying “I think that mental health is your problem here. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation.”  Yes, mental health problems need to be simultaneously addressed, but it IS a guns “situation” as well.  And why did he genuflect to the NRA, rescinding a regulation that makes it harder for people with mental illness histories to purchase guns?

Our “leaders” must offer more than condolences and prayers to the thousands and thousands of families who have been impacted by gun violence and those who will be victims in the future.