Posts Tagged ‘Actors vis-a-vis Audiences’

A Relaxing and Working Journalist’s Week

Out in the county © 1981, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton

Wandering all over Dallas and Ward Counties

Some warnings to readers: This is another column from my much-diminished pile of ancient columns and feature articles. It dates from November 1981. Another interesting facet to this gem is that it illustrates how inflated one’s perception of his own stature and domain of authority can become if he lingers in any position or place too long. < Claiming that Dallas is Ward County’s north forty!!! Bosh!!! Presuming to exhibit how a lady’s coat needs cleaning!!! Pish!!! > Oh well, I was young then…and handsome and wise. I need to alert you to the fact that this column is about 1,300 words long, so don’t feel disloyal if you begin to yawn and want to wander off to your bed or couch. I tried to make the piece engrossing and exciting, but it’s not a cliff-hanger mystery tale, people. My genius can only accomplish so much. However, you won’t offend me at all if you don’t finish perusing. Just rest in your nightmares.

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The following column is rated R.  It is recommended for adult reading only.  It should be read only at night.
Well, I finally got off to Dallas for a brief vacation last weekend. I suppose you’re wondering why I’d include Dallas in an “Out in the county” column.  It’s this way.  I’ve begun to look at Dallas as sort of the “north forty” of Ward County.  That’s because every time I fly up there I see someone from Ward either going to or returning from Big D.  This time it was N.R. Bragg, a retired gentleman who lives out in Thorntonville.  Also, my traveling companion on the trip was Tom “Delegate” Murray, recently elected president of the Ward County Democrats. In Dallas, I gave Tom a whirlwind tour of the “cultural pubs” along Knox Street, and then he went on up to Denton while I visited family and friends in the Metroplex.

One strange new phenomenon I noticed along I-35 was a motel called the “Non-Smokers Inn”.  Later, my mother showed me a Bob Greene column explaining the innovative inn.  It has apparently just opened up, and the owner — who had recently lost some friends to emphysema — had sworn not to allow any smokers, either registrants or employees, to stay there if they smoked a single cigarette.  Even the construction workers, Greene noted, had had to be non-smokers, a requirement which no doubt slowed the construction schedule.

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During my brief sojourn in the big city I was just in time to attend the final reading at SMU’s annual literary festival.  At one of the entrances to McFarlin Auditorium, I encountered old friends, an English professor and his wife, who were greeting people at the door in their capacity as two of several departmental hosts for the week-long event.  I had wanted to sit in the back so I could make a quick exit if the mood struck me, but they insisted I sit with them and piloted me up to the fourth row. Featured reader for the evening was Donald Barthelme, a frequent contributor to New Yorker magazine, so you can imagine what the pieces he read to us were like — short, comical, sophisticated.  However, I must have molted off my cultural skin during two years in West Texas, because I sat there like a cigar store Indian bemusedly examining the brown tweed coat on an elderly lady directly in front of me.  Two long strands of detached hair were lying along the right shoulder of the garment, and I was mightily tempted to remove them for her.  But, I feared she might jump like Little Miss Muffet or turn about indignant at my officiousness if she happened to detect my action.  Then again, she might never know. The issue was resolved when Barthelme began his last reading.  The theme of it had something to do with chronometry, I believe, and each paragraph ended with an oft-used barnyard phrase “…and all that s—!”  The lady with the hair-littered coat and her male companion of an equally advanced age, after hearing Barthelme’s selection nearly to its conclusion, arose and left the auditorium. The author, it seemed, had wrenched my opportunity to do a good deed that night right out of my grasp.

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Another event which I consider historic (although I missed it by three or four weeks) was the demise of Henry’s Café on Hillcrest across from SMU.  Saturday morning, I walked across the campus, fully relishing the prospect of a breakfast such as I had enjoyed with musician friends at Henry’s virtually every Saturday for many years.  I was shocked upon finding instead a remodeled building with a sign over it saying “Dixie’s Hamburgers”.  What Dixie’s called a breakfast was a scrambled egg and sausage pressed between the halves of an English muffin. Time occasionally marches with a rather abrupt tread.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Back at Midland-Odessa Airport, Tom and I spent a good while locating my dust-covered Pinto.  It was already dusk when we drove out onto the highway, and I said, “Sure glad you waited to come back with me, Tom.  It’s a long dull drive between here and Monahans, and having you to talk with will help me keep awake.” By the time we reached the caprock, Tom was slumped in the carseat — asleep.

*  *  *  *  *  *

A couple of days later, Sgt. Jim Vaughan of the MPD said to me, “Something really weird happened while you were gone, Bob. I got a call from the Homicide Bureau of the San Antonio Police Department. They had traced your license number on the NCIC and wanted to question you about a bunch of assaults in San Antonio. They asked me, if they described your car, could I find you. I told them they didn’t have to describe it. I knew what it was, I said, a brown Pinto and you were our editor.  Then they said, ‘That can’t be. The car we’re looking for is a Mustang!’”

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In the more conventional mode of “Out in the county”, I ventured into Wickett Tuesday afternoon. There I was informed by City Secretary Sherry Adams that the building permit fee had been raised to $5 from 25 cents at the last council meeting. I asked Sherry why it had been raised so much.  “The fee should have been raised a long time ago,” she replied. “It costs us more than 25 cents just to get the information we need. The permit’s original purpose was to get people in here so we’d know what they were doing. Now there are several people in town who haven’t gotten a permit and they’re adding on or building a new building.”

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At the Wickett Post Office, I met Postmaster Don Bowen, who has served in his present position ten and a half years, although he started with the post office in Monahans in 1965 and still resides there. Bowen is an out-going sort of fellow.  His favorite leisure time activity is bowling.  Several league trophies are prominently displayed in his post office.  “I enjoy the fellowship,” he told me. “I enjoy it when I win and I enjoy it when I lose.” The postmaster informed me he is putting mail into 330 rented boxes, about 100 more than when he came to Wickett ten years ago.  Twenty of those boxes belong to businesses.

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One of the businesses served by the post office is Luckie’s Grocery, a family-owned operation in Wickett for 36 years. (And that is the correct spelling!) In the grocery store, I met not only the present proprietor, Olaff Luckie, but his father and the store’s founder, W.B. “Barney” Luckie. “I moved here from Eola, Concho County, in 1944,” the elder Luckie recalled. “I worked for Wickett Refining Company until I got crossways with the boss one day and he fired me. Then I was talking to a salesman one day and he told me, ‘There’s a little grocery in Pyote and you could make a lot of money there if you run it right.’” So, Barney got his grocery business started in Pyote, and when son Olaff got out of the navy in 1946 they moved it to Wickett.  “In ’46 nearly everybody here was working for Gulf or Cabot,” said Olaff. “Nearly every account we had was with people who worked for those two companies. Now it’s practically all servicing companies here, about twelve of them.” “Yeah,” said Barney, “and they can’t find anybody to work or it would be even more of a boom town than it is.” Added Olaff: “If the work force in this country would put in a seven-hour day for eight-hours pay, commodities would go down in price ten percent — but they just won’t do it.”  — Monahans News, November 19, 1981



Amira’s Anniversary

© 2014 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  Well, today is a red-letter day in my calendar: It is the first year anniversary of Amira Willighagen’s earning the trophy at Holland’s Got Talent competition.

As some of you will have noticed (and probably wondered at), I have already published, last November 12, an announcement of the anniversary. I confess: I intended to hold that writing until today; but, as often happens with me, it got hot in my little hands; I just had to broadcast it to the world then and there. Those of you who did not read it back in November can peruse it now, if you like, by clicking on the second highlighted URL below.

That actually was my second review of Amira’s now several YouTube videos, which I view often. The first piece I wrote about her was published on this blog site back on June 8; that was just after I had viewed for the first time the three performances she made on HGT. The URL for the June 8 post is provided below (the top one).

I do not really have much new on which to comment today except that on November 8 Amira and her family were in Vatican City, Rome, where she received awards from the Giuseppe Sciacca Foundation for her accomplishments in music and service to the community. She sang “Ave Maria” on that occasion, but I was able to view it only once before the video was removed due to some copyright issue with Sony Music Entertainment: the removal was not at all explained and is a major disappointment; but “that’s show biz”, I guess. Also, last Saturday I discovered that on December 15 Amira sang “O Holy Night” (in English) during a Christmas entertainment at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Opera soprano great Maria Callas reportedly lost her singing ability after she intentionally started losing weight. My question is, is it better to have a continuing vocal career or a healthy body? Since Amira has already repeatedly stated she might opt for an athletic career instead of a singing one, then I believe she values her body overall above her voice. As an adult, her vocal ability will lose its exceptional character; and I hope and trust she will modestly accept blending in with the other talented adults with whom she will perform. As for athletic ambition, two of my friends have had to undergo knee replacements in their middle years because of the jogging and foot-racing enthusiasms they enjoyed in their youths: Every choice comes with a price.

Even if Amira does lose her vocal talent from singing “too early”, she will have the past year to look back on as possibly the happiest in her life, not because she attracted so much admiring attention but because of her adventures: the suspense of the audition; the support of her family, friends, audiences; her travels to other countries; her appearance with Andre Rieu at Maastricht; her CD triumph; her receipt of the humanitarian award in Vatican City; and appreciative applause from people around the world, including this 75-year-old curmudgeon.

Her family is a unity: her parents support her but also limit (as does Netherlands law, I understand) the number of times she can appear at concerts and interviews during a single year; from what I have seen of their home on YouTube they are financially secure enough to enjoy life without depending on any income from Amira’s concerts, half of which she is contributing to a charity she herself established. Amira appears to have as much common sense as she does singing ability; I doubt that she will do anything purposely that would endanger her future welfare, whatever she deems that to be.

I do not know whether I will have any future occasion to comment on Amira’s career. I doubt it, since the only value in what I have said to date concerns gauging her entrance onto the world’s walk of fame, and I have done all that. She has arrived. She has her own Internet site now where she logs all the noteworthy events in her life. All I can say is…

Happy Anniversary!!!

P.S.  Be sure to check out my blog tomorrow (December 29), for it will be another anniversary — of my birth back in 1939. I have written a special post for it.
— BL

A Chaos of Taste in the Arts

By Bob Litton

“To judge rightly of an author, we must transport ourselves to his time, and examine what were the wants of his contemporaries, and what were his means of supplying them. That which is easy at one time was difficult at another.”
Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets, “John Dryden

It is virtually impossible for me to imagine anything that so completely informs ourselves and our environs as taste, both physical and mental.  The subject is so vast, in fact, that it cannot be covered adequately in an essay, only possibly in a very large book.  It is necessary, then, for me to circumscribe my topic to a fairly small part of the idea of taste.  Perhaps as I proceed, though, we might find that that small slice will be fertile for extrapolation to other areas.

I was agitated to write about dramatic irony by a friend who forwarded to me an essay by Stanley Fish, a professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University.  Fish’s essay was a rebuttal of reviews he had read of the film Les Miserables. After having read the reviews, Fish went to see the film — twice; he said he “loved it”.  Two common criticisms of the film to which he took exception were (1) that the music was unrelievedly repetitive and emotionally manipulative, and (2) that the close-ups were too much “in your face”,  so much so that the audience could see the actors/singers’ larynxes.  (A third criticism — that the “prosaic lyrics” were sung directly rather than lip-synced — I will ignore because it is a purely technical matter and, to me, of minor importance.)

I, too, saw Les Miserables, although only once and on a 9-inch by 12-inch computer monitor.  Early on, I recognized what the critics meant by “repetition” and (intended) emotional manipulation.  The continual drumming of refrains, which I will paraphrase as “O look down and see what you are doing to us!” and “Oh woe are we!”, I began to feel would never end; but I was not manipulated into feeling sorrow for those folks, only pity for me  because I was going to have to sit through nearly two hours of this wailing.  As for the “in your face” close-ups, however, I did not perceive any of that; the film seemed fairly regular in distancing, in line with other modern films I have seen.  (However, I will note here as an aside that I have been annoyed of late by TV commercials where “customers” were so excessively up close that I could see the pores in their skin: there is such a thing as a “comfort zone”, people!  Also, in a video tape I treasure of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Concert in Central Park”, the segment where Art Garfunkel sings “Bridge Over Trouble Waters” —a great song! — is marred, at the point where he holds a high note several seconds, by a close-up that practically peers into his throat.)  What I did notice in Les Miserables, negatively, was the general darkness throughout the film; I also had noted even worse lighting in the new film Lincoln the day before.  Available lighting is reportedly part of the new cinematic philosophy: a part that disgusts me as much as the other new principle: indistinct dialogue — virtual whispering at times.  Thank God for closed captioning!

Fish argued that the critics were holding onto an out-dated theory of “dramatic irony”, which he defined as “…a brief against affirmation, against the unsophisticated embrace of positive (unqualified) values”.  He broadens that definition, relative to the theater and plastic arts, to mean a distance between the performers and the audience that allows knowledgeable viewers (i.e., the critics) room to evaluate their performances.  In reaction to irony, some modern painters have adopted a philosophy called “Color Field painting”, which, according to Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, involves “‘flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth…figure and ground are one, and the space of the picture, conceived as a field, seems to spread out beyond the edges of the canvas.’”  Fish adds: “As a result you are not encouraged to engage in higher-order thought about what you are viewing; it’s all very elemental; it hits you straight on.”   In other words, “Vamoose, you middle men, you low-down higher-order critics!”

Now, I wish to dispose of Prof. Fish’s arguments as quickly as possible and get on to more substantive aspects of the audience vis-à-vis the stage and the characters upon it.  Firstly, a dictionary’s definition of “dramatic irony”:

The dramatic effect achieved by leading an audience to understand an incongruity between a situation and the accompanying speeches, while the characters in the play remain unaware of the incongruity.
From The American Heritage Dictionary (2009)

The most telling example of this literary element is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother.  I won’t take up space here relating the plot of this classical play, only note that it is full of surprises for the characters and accumulating tensions for the knowing audience.  How could anyone, now or in Hellenic Greece, argue against the dramaturgical need of such a device?  It’s almost as basic as the stage itself.  Of course, fashions and languages change over the centuries as do subject matter and acting technique.  Aristotle’s dogma of the “unities” (a play’s action should be restricted to a single place and a single day) was ignored by Shakespeare and has been even more radically but naturally abandoned by today’s space-age script-writers.  However, I cannot recall hearing about, or reading any convincing argument for, abandoning dramatic irony, although I will acknowledge that I am not broadly read in the subject.  As Samuel Johnson remarked in his “Preface to Shakespeare”:

The truth is that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players.  They came to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation.

This whole direction in avant garde arts is, to me, a sign of the exhaustion of artistic creativity.  It shows up everywhere: obscenities in the scripts, second-time remakes of movies, TV series copying other TV series’ themes (e.g., vampire loves and crime scene procedurals), reality TV shows running over fictional shows, movies with loud and now trite special effects, and minimal dialogue.  The plastic arts are no better: painters trying to convince us that their single horizontal line across a canvas is a work of genius because there’s little to nothing there except its pattern, two colors, or texture.  (One painter especially seems to have taken the old demurrer of “I can’t draw a straight line!” as a personal challenge to do just that…and only that.)  As in the continual radicalizing of clothing and haircuts, so the younger generation seems so bereft of a generative self-concept that they grasp at the outrageous to make themselves noticed.  I can imagine one young sculptor now who, after defecating, invites his patrons into his bathroom to admire his latest creation in the toilet.

But now let’s step up to a more philosophical plane — that level which Fish calls the “higher-order thought” — and thumb through some old questions about taste.  The 18th Century empiricist philosopher David Hume held two seemingly conflicting beliefs at the same time: that beauty is in the mind of the beholder (i.e., subjective) and that nonetheless there is a standard of taste which is universal though only so in its most abstract or extreme forms.  He notes, in his essay “On the Standard of Taste”, that:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.  One person may even perceive deformity where another is sensible of beauty, and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.

On the other hand, he wrote:

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance than if he had maintained a molehill to be as high as Teneriffe, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.

(John Ogilby [1600-1676] wrote translations of Homer and Virgil that were ridiculed by John Dryden and Alexander Pope.  John Bunyan [1628-1688] was a popular preacher and the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, which, although considered low literature in Hume’s day, is now considered a classic work.)

I would hazard a guess that Bunyan is read by more people now than is Joseph Addison.  Ironically, as Hume said, centuries pass by and taste changes.  But that is not to say that Hume and Addison are not worth reading; Hume’s style, particularly, is precise and his content is informed.  He tried to be as tolerant as anyone could be and very likely was more so than many others of his day.  He acknowledged that he was limited by the conventions and values of his age and country:

[W]e are more pleased in the course of our reading with pictures and characters that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country than with those which describe a different set of customs.  It is not without some effort that we reconcile ourselves to the simplicity of ancient manners, and behold princesses carrying water from the spring, and kings and heroes dressing their own victuals.

But back to the question of the audience and the stage.

In 1947, Margo Jones opened the first professional theater-in-the-round in Dallas, Texas. Amateur stages of the type had existed at colleges since the early 20th Century but hadn’t been used for professional performances for nearly two millennia, according to Wikipedia.  “In 1972, RG Gregory,  (a British dramatist, actor and producer), started the Word and Action theater company in Dorset, England, to work exclusively with theater-in-the-round.  He sought to create a grammar that would enable actors to maximize the form’s potential for connecting with the audience, both as individuals and as a collective.  All Word and Action productions were performed in normal lighting conditions without costume or make up.” (Wikipedia) Aha! So that is where all this dim lighting and whispering I complained about originated!

Gregory preached that the dominant Proscenium stage is “analogous to the seat of power”, that it places the audience in the role of passive receivers.  The theater-in-the-round effectively eliminated the “fourth wall” (i.e., the front of the stage through which the audience viewed the action of the world existing on the stage).  The theater-in-the-round format was a bit hard on actors trained to consider it bad form to turn their backs to the audience.  However, according to Gregory’s theory, the audience was now positioned to have to react to the play, to become part of the action.  I recall a New Yorker magazine cartoon of the 1970s showing an actor in period costume standing in a theater aisle and asking an audience member if he was going to just sit there and let one of the other characters abuse a third one.

It appears to me that we are talking about three degrees of ignorance here: the character ignorant of his fate; the actor ignorant, at times, of the audience; and the audience ignorant, until the denouement, of all the facts in the drama before them.  Oddly enough, this was not usually the case in ancient Greece’s tragedies because the plays were derived from well-known myths and epic poems.  However, it is quite common in modern detective TV shows and movies, where much information to which the audience  had no access is suddenly presented in the last scene during the detective’s wrap-up of the mystery.  That, I agree, is an irritating use of dramatic irony; yet, we all can accept the fact that it is very difficult to compose a plausible mystery that remains a mystery until the end while having presented all the relevant facts piecemeal and camouflaged throughout the story or play.  And mysteries are generally accepted as “low-brow” escapist entertainment, so it hardly behooves us to complain about what is simply an amusing recreation, like an Easter egg hunt.

As for more serious dramatic productions, I haven’t the power or authority to dictate to directors or other artistes how they present their works.  All I can say is that, until they return to making their products visible, audible and less dependent on grossness and special effects, I won’t attend to them.



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