Saturday, May 12, 2018

Friday, May 11, 2018

Tribute

Tonight we had a tribute to the works of William Inge with excerpts from three of his plays performed by actors from the University of Tulsa and Independence Community College, hosted by Ralph Voss, the man who literally wrote the book on William Inge.

We’re having a great time. I saw some very creative short plays at the second round of the New Play Lab. Amazing talent and acting.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Family Reunion

I got to Independence this afternoon, settled in (last-minute change put me at the Super 8 instead of the Inge House), and met up with my Inge family, old and new, plus playwright friends from Facebook. Tonight we saw a great reading of Carlyle Brown’s “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?”, a play about Langston Hughes facing the McCarthy hearings. Then we had an Inge-Fringe party at the museum and had a great time. And in the lobby of the theatre I met up with my own works on sale.

It’s great to be back.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Week Ahead

This is going to be one of those truncated weeks again for me as I get ready to head off to Independence, Kansas for my 26th trip to the William Inge Festival.  This year I’m standing in for a friend as host of the scholars conference, so I’ll get to see most of the events, including the New Play Lab, without having to prepare much or be nervous about a production of a play of mine.

In all the years I’ve been going, I’ve always found it both calming and enlightening to go to this small town in the prairie (about ten miles north of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “little house on the prairie”).  It reminds me of the place I grew up, and even if we are poles apart politically, the people are friendly and welcoming, and far more willing to welcome the eccentricities of big-city folk than if the tables were turned.  They do more than tolerate the visitors; they’re actually happy to have us, at least for a little while, and even if they may feel that our values don’t match theirs, I’ve never felt as if it was a zero sum game.  There is something to be said for mutual respect.

I know that it’s trendy on TV to pit one group against the other; that sells papers and boosts ratings.  And I know that it’s easy to say “both sides do it” and “don’t bother to argue with them.”  Rather, I’d like to think that the impression I leave on the people I meet there is that while I may be a lily-livered liberal snowflake faerie and they’re right-wing nutsery, we can still occupy the same space at the same time for four days and still come home with the feeling of having learned more than just something about theatre history.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I’m home again, safe and sound from my week-long journey to and through America’s heartland, and in doing so I utilized all three modes of transport.  I am used to the trials and tribulations of travel nowadays, but I learned a couple of things as well.  For instance, having TSA Pre-Check doesn’t really make a difference in small airports or at the crack of dawn; they shuttle everyone through the same line and you go through the same ritual as everyone else.  Main Cabin Extra on American Airlines doesn’t give you more legroom; all it does is give you a few minutes ahead of everyone else to find that out.  Car rental agents and shuttle drivers are friendly and helpful even late at night (or early in the morning, depending on your point of view), and it seems that no matter where you go in America, there’s always a good local place for a great cup of coffee; check out the Coffee Zone in Columbia, Missouri.

I also learned that it is possible to over-pack and even if you plan very carefully, you come back with an increased volume of clothing than what you had when you left.  I didn’t need seven shirts, four pairs of pants, and my blazer, and even if I had, I could have saved some space for the two books that I picked up at the conference.

I also ran the gamut of emotions reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.  I had dinner with a former camper of mine and his wife.  I first met him when he was twelve, and now he’s hit the mid-century mark and has a great career and family.  He told me that I had been and still was a very important part of his formative years, which is both gratifying to hear and reminds me of the tremendous impact a friendship can have.  (And he is still as buff as he was when we worked out at the CU Rec Center thirty years ago.)  I reconnected with people who were an important part of my theatre scholarship life, including one of the men who was the focus of my doctoral dissertation.  He greeted me with a hug and reaffirmed many of the things I’d learned about theatre in general… and about being a good human being.  I made new friends and felt like I’d known them for years after just sharing lunch, and also discovered that when you think you know everything about something, you’re just beginning to hear the whole story.

I also cherished the time — all too brief — with my parents.

The next-to-last leg of the journey was on Miami MetroRail from the airport to Dadeland South.  That’s the mode of transport I use to commute to work, a ritual I will recommence in a little while.  It was, I suppose, a way to ease my way back into my normal routine, at least for the next ten days until I once again venture out into the heartland to learn more about people, life, theatre, and how to pack a carry-on.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Home Fires

Last night we saw the University of Missouri Theatre Department’s production of Lanford Wilson’s “The Rimers of Eldritch.”  It is an ensemble play that moves from place to place, person to person, while exploring the lives and personalities of people in a small dying town in the Ozarks.

Written in 1965 and first performed at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1966, it has been portrayed as one of Wilson’s most complicated and darkest plays.  The plot revolves around the murder of a local hermit by a woman who thought he was trying to commit a rape when he was trying to stop one.

It is not a linear play, and the actual murder isn’t shown or even alluded to until the very end.  Wilson leads us through the town and shows us the characters in bits and pieces, not unlike his earlier play “Balm in Gilead,” where we meet a collection of street people in an all-night diner and hear their stories and dramas in snatches out of time and place.

The production last night was tight, well-done, and held the audience throughout the entire performance.  I’m pretty sure that the actors felt a bit of pressure knowing that in the the audience were members of the original company that produced the play over fifty years ago along with a collection of Wilson scholars and students, but if they did, they didn’t show it.  It was a fine evening of theatre, and for me, the best production I’ve seen of this play.

*

Today the conference continues with presentations of papers and workshops.  My turn comes tomorrow afternoon.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Reunion

I made it to Columbia, Missouri, safe and sound and was greeted by Al, a charming and enthusiastic grad student of theatre, who brought me to the hotel, showed me around campus, took me to a great place for lunch, and generally made me feel very welcome.  I even met his adorable boxer pup Argos.

I was reunited with my dear friend Jackson Bryer, whom I’ve known from the Inge Festival since I started going.  He’s one of those people who you know instantly will be a constant friend, and that’s how he’s been since 1991.  He also does not age.  To quote a line from “Fifth of July” by Lanford Wilson, the man whose life and work we’re honoring this week, “Somewhere there’s a picture of him going to hell.”

The conference starts today with more reunions and a performance tonight of “The Rimers of Eldritch.”  I don’t know how to explain the play, having only read it several times in order to grasp it.  Maybe after tonight I’ll be able to say something about it.

Anyway, here I am.  It was drizzling all day, but the forecast calls for better weather the rest of the week.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

On The Road Again

Heading out this evening for a trip to see my folks for a couple of days, then off to the Missouri Self-Taught: Lanford Wilson and the American Drama conference at the University of Missouri.  I’ll present a paper on Mr. Wilson and compare his life and work to that of William Inge.  I’ll be doing it in front of friends and family of Mr. Wilson and the subject of my dissertation, so, no pressure.

Lanford Wilson 1937-2011

Actually it should be fun.  I’ll be reconnecting with friends and getting to look through the Wilson archives and learn more about him and his life and work.

I’m also looking forward to spending time with my mom and dad.

I’ll post about what I learn; maybe even some pictures.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Friday, March 9, 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Difference Between Film And Theatre

This is just an observation without any research behind it, but I think it points up another of the differences between film and theatre when a movie wins Best Picture without winning any acting or writing awards to back it up.

I can’t imagine that happening at the Tonys.  It probably has, but I can’t imagine it nonetheless.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Home And Garden

My play “All Together Now” opens tomorrow night at the Willow Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida, produced by The Playgroup and directed by Joyce Sweeney.

Here’s a look at the set, designed by Nick LoMonte.  As several of the characters note, “Wow, this is a nice place.”

Photo by David Ehrlich.

It’s what I imagined the home of Paul Henderson and Adam Connolly would look like when I wrote the play.  And that’s the best thing I can hope for.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Reading

Four Truths About the Florida School Shooting — Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

Onto the continuing tragedy of American gun violence are now piled many kinds of grotesquerie, not least the e-mails, sure to come to any parent with kids still in school anywhere in the country, offering “tips on talking to children about violence” and promising that your child’s school “has been performing lockdown drill protocols that our security team and consultants have recommended to ensure that we are prepared in the unlikely event that an incident occurs.” We have normalized gun killings to the point that we must now be reassured that, when the person with the AR-15 comes to your kid’s school, there’s a plan to cope with him. (That the planning is almost worthless is proved by the killings in Florida, where the murderer may have taken advantage of his knowledge of the lockdown protocols in order to kill more students.) Here, though, are four simple truths worth saying again, in the aftermath of the Florida massacre, about gun control and gun violence.

1. The gun lobby, and the Republican Party it controls, have accepted as a matter of necessity the ongoing deaths of hundreds of children as the price that they are prepared to pay for the fetishization of weapons. The claim of this lobby’s complicity in murder is not exaggerated or hysterical but, by now, quite simple and precise: when you refuse to act to stop a social catastrophe from happening, you are responsible for the consequences of the social catastrophe. If you refuse to immunize your children and a measles epidemic breaks out, you are implicated in the measles. If you refuse to pay money for sewers and cholera breaks out, you are complicit in the cholera. Acts have consequences. This complicity includes all of the hand-wringers and the tut-tutters and the “nothing to be done”-ers as much as the N.R.A. hardcore. Many people have predicted, repeatedly, that one gun massacre would lead to the next—and that more gun massacres would probably take place in one year in America than in the rest of the civilized world combined—and they have been proved right, and then right again. Since everyone knew that this would happen again, those who did nothing to stop it happening again—and everything they did to see that no one else could do anything to stop it happening again—are complicit when it happens, again.

2. The claim that gun massacres are mysterious or difficult or bewildering or resistant to legislation is a lie. When people say that nothing can be done because this law wouldn’t stop this one, or that law that one, they are acting in ignorance of the most significant and obvious fact: that no other modernized society experiences remotely the frequency or the horror of American gun killings. There is no mystery at all to stopping this, if there is a minimal will to stop it. A huge, repeated body of social science shows that gun control controls gun violence, and largely eliminates gun massacres, within the normal limits of human action. (People still die of infections; that is no argument against the efficacy of antibiotics. Crimes continue on our streets; that is no argument against the thousand small sanities that have so dramatically reduced violent crime in our cities.) If we had gun laws like the gun laws in Canada or in Britain, we would have gun violence at the level that it exists in Canada and Britain. There is no special American quiddity that would alter this—to insist otherwise is as irrational as insisting that American kids shouldn’t be immunized because American kids have a different kind of immunity than other kids. They don’t. Building small barriers to gun violence reduces all gun violence. The lesson of contemporary social science is that small difficulties have great effects; make crime harder and you have much less crime. Make getting guns harder and you will have fewer people using them. Merely make gun ownership as demanding as, say, car ownership, with a license to obtain and insurance to buy, and you will see a drastic reduction in gun violence and perhaps a near-end to the mass killings of children.

3. The Second Amendment is not a barrier to gun sanity. The reading, from left to right, of the amendment was—until the day before yesterday, historically speaking—that it provided no guarantee to the individual ownership of guns. The notion that it does is novel, radical, and wrong.

4. The attempt to turn the question of gun violence into a question of mental health is obscene. Of course, people who kill children en masse are crazy. That’s the given. Saying this says nothing; every country contains mentally ill and potentially violent people. Only America arms them. When Donald Trump, who last year signed a bill to end a mild Obama-era rule designed to keep mass-killing weapons out of the hands of people with certain mental illnesses, talks about reporting people who are “mentally disturbed” to the proper authorities—well, irony piles upon irony, and the only adequate tribute is contempt and silence.

Mueller’s Message to America — Paul Rosenzweig in The Atlantic.

With yet another blockbuster indictment (why is it always on a Friday afternoon?), Special Counsel Robert Mueller has, once again, upended Washington. And this time, it is possible  that his efforts may have a wider effect outside the Beltway.

For those following the matter, there has been little doubt that Russian citizens attempted to interfere with the American presidential election. The American intelligence agencies  publicized  that conclusion more than a year ago in a report issued in January 2017, and it has stood by the analysis whenever it has been questioned. But some in the country have doubted the assertion—asking for evidence of interference that was not forthcoming.

Now the evidence has been laid out in painful detail by the special counsel. If any significant fraction of what is alleged in the latest indictment is true (and we should, of course, remind ourselves that an indictment is just an allegation—not proof), then this tale is a stunning condemnation of Russian activity. A Russian organization with hundreds of employees and a budget of millions of dollars is said to have systematically engaged in an effort (code named “Project Lakhta”) to undermine the integrity of the election and, perhaps more importantly, to have attempted to influence the election to benefit then-candidate Donald Trump. Among the allegations, the Russians:

  • Conducted political intelligence-gathering activities in the United States;

  • Hid their activities by setting up virtual networks in America that masked their extra-American communications;

  • Influenced the American election by using false personas to organize rallies for Trump, criticizing Muslims and spreading allegations of voter fraud by candidate Clinton;

  • Stole American identities to create controlled accounts; and

  • Destroyed evidence of their activities.

The details of these activities are painfully explicit; the indictment cites dates, times, places, messages, posts, and specific rallies. In short, if the facts prove out, there can be absolutely no doubt—none whatsoever—that Russian actors engaged in a multi-year, multi-million-dollar campaign of influence.

From this, it seems that two things are clear. First, while the “official” purpose of this indictment is to criminally prosecute violations of American law, the indictment also has a second purpose—to inform the American public and their representatives. Let’s be blunt—none of the Russians who were indicted will ever,ever, see the inside of an American courtroom. Russia won’t extradite them and we won’t, realistically, expect them to do so. The individuals may not have as much freedom to travel (say, to the French Riviera) for fear of arrest, but otherwise the effect on them will be negligible.

Given that reality, this indictment (which prosecutors sometimes call a “speaking indictment”) is so detailed precisely because the evidence will never be presented in a court. It is designed to give as full an accounting of the known facts as the prosecutors reasonably can. Beyond prosecution, the clear goal here is to speak to the American public—and if this message isn’t sufficient, then no message can possibly sway the body politic.

The indictment is also conspicuous for failing to allege any act of collusion between the Russian actors and any Americans at all. There are no identified American co-conspirators and there certainly is no allegation that the Russians acted with the knowledge of (much less the approval of) any individuals in the Trump campaign. As far as the indictment is concerned, the Russian activity was initiated by the Russians for their own strategic benefit, and candidate Trump may only have been an incidental beneficiary of their activity.

Again, that seems an unlikely proposition. But in fairness to President Trump, we need to acknowledge that, thus far, the Mueller team has alleged no active collusion. For the Trump team, that will be the takeaway from today’s indictment.

For the rest of America, the takeaway should be much grimmer: The threat to the integrity of our elections is real. The main question that Mueller asks is not whether the Russians are guilty, but what America is going to do about it? If, faced with this reality, we continue to do nothing, then the blame for the next failure will be on us.

Ben Franklin, when asked what sort of government the Founders created, is reported to have said “a Republic, if you can keep it.” Americans must now to decide if we want to keep ours.

Breaking Barriers — Sopan Deb profiles an actor with Down Syndrome who plays the lead.

Near the end of 2015, the playwright Lindsey Ferrentino and the actress Jamie Brewer were watching clips of Donald J. Trump, then a candidate, appearing to mock a reporter with a physical disability. They were horrified — which made their work on a new play, centered on a character with Down syndrome, all the more significant.

“From that point forward, the play took on a new meaning for me,” Ms. Ferrentino said.

“Big time,” Ms. Brewer added.

“Watching you watch that video, seeing your reaction to it, you cried,” Ms. Ferrentino said, turning to her.

“I was emotional,” Ms. Brewer said.

The play, “Amy and the Orphans,” which opens March 1 in a Roundabout Theater Company production at the Laura Pels Theater, is a barrier-breaking show. Ms. Brewer, 33, and her understudy, Edward Barbanell, 40, are thought to be the only known performers with Down syndrome to play the lead in an Off Broadway or Broadway theater production.

The show is about three siblings who reunite after their father’s death, and the road trip that follows. Ms. Ferrentino, who debuted with the critically acclaimed play “Ugly Lies the Bone,” in 2015, was insistent that the title role be played by someone with the disability, even leaving a note in an early draft of the script: “Finding a talented actor with Down syndrome isn’t difficult. So please do it.”

Ms. Brewer is a veteran actress best known for her groundbreaking work on the television series “American Horror Story.” Mr. Barbanell, who goes by Eddie, played Billy in the 2005 movie “The Ringer,” starring Johnny Knoxville. He and Ms. Brewer have performed onstage for much of their lives.

But taking on such a large and high-profile theater role is a completely new challenge.

“The biggest hurdle is the amount of dialogue and stage direction that comes all at once,” said Gail Williamson, Ms. Brewer’s agent, and a prominent advocate for performers with disabilities. “When you’re doing a television show or a film, you have a scene and you can work on that one scene. Doing theater, you have to have it all down.”

At the rehearsal space for the show, Ms. Brewer was going over lines with fellow cast members Debra Monk, Mark Blum and Vanessa Aspillaga. In the scene, Amy, wearing pink noise-canceling headphones as she watches a movie on her tablet, is visited by her two siblings, played by Ms. Monk and Mr. Blum. Ms. Aspillaga portrays a caretaker. Every few minutes, after a scene would start, the show’s veteran director, Scott Ellis, would interrupt to offer notes and tweak the blocking. Turn this way. Walk that way. React more.

The stops and starts were especially important for Ms. Brewer. The more repetition, the easier the memorization, and the more the scenes would be ingrained into her muscle memory.

“That was great, Jamie,” Mr. Ellis said. “Back it up one more time,”

Another stop, more direction and then repeat. Mr. Ellis kept offering words of encouragement to the cast, while Ms. Ferrentino sat nearby, taking notes on a notepad smaller than her hand. Occasionally, she would whisper to Mr. Ellis. Throughout the rehearsal, Ms. Brewer cracked jokes; nearby, Mr. Barbanell quietly observed.

The play is based on Amy Jacobs, Ms. Ferrentino’s aunt, who also had Down syndrome and is now deceased. When Ms. Ferrentino began writing the play, her process was complicated by the limits of her aunt’s verbal skills, which made creating dialogue a challenge. In 2015, she reached out to Ms. Williamson, whose entire client roster is made up of performers with disabilities. Ms. Williamson connected her with Ms. Brewer, who had just become the first person with Down syndrome to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week. The playwright and the actress met for coffee and hit it off immediately.

Ms. Brewer told Ms. Ferrentino that when she had played characters with Down syndrome, she often had to cater to an audience’s expectations, regardless of her abilities. Immediately, Ms. Ferrentino decided that the play would be as much about Ms. Brewer as about her aunt.

“That informed how I wrote the play,” she said. She wanted to give Ms. Brewer room “as an actor, and a person, a chance to step outside that role and show the audience who she actually is.”

Ms. Brewer, an only child, grew up in Orange County, California, before moving near Houston, where she was involved with a local theater. She said she started performing around eighth grade, with her family’s support.

“Individuals with disabilities have different ways of coping with things,” Ms. Brewer said. Her way, she explained, was plunging into the arts, like her character, who must handle her father’s death.

After the play was written, the task was to find Ms. Brewer’s understudy. Ms. Williamson connected Ms. Ferrentino with Mr. Barbanell, who was living in Coral Springs, Fla.

For their first meeting, Ms. Ferrentino told him not to prepare anything; she just wanted to meet him. But Mr. Barbanell, accompanied by his mother, was ready with scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Julius Caesar,” “Henry V” and “Romeo and Juliet.” At a diner, he pushed his ice cream sundae aside and insisted on showing Ms. Ferrentino his skills.

Just like that, he won her over.

“He performed the most beautiful, word-perfect Shakespeare,” Ms. Ferrentino said. And instead of finding another Amy, Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis decided that Mr. Barbanell should occasionally be given his own performance dates — and when he played the lead, the play would be “Andy and the Orphans,” with some scenes rewritten for a male lead.

On the first day that the cast rehearsed in the actual performance space at the Laura Pels Theater on 46th Street, Mr. Barbanell, urged by Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis, stood up and enthusiastically recited Romeo’s balcony speech from “Romeo and Juliet.” (“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”)

Encouragement for this cast was not in short supply, Mr. Barbanell noted.

“Because I have Down syndrome, I’m down and I’m up,” Mr. Barbanell said. “I’m like an elevator, and they brought me up,” he added, referring to Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis.

Ms. Ferrentino and Mr. Ellis have embarked on a learning process of their own. Neither had ever done anything like this. And it turned out not to be as daunting as it seemed.

“The questions that we had, so far, are, ‘What is it like having actors with Down syndrome in our professional rehearsal space?’” Ms. Ferrentino said. “Well, we’ve answered at least that question. It’s not that different. So the next question is, what would it be like to have them in performance? Who knows what the answer to that is?”

Mr. Ellis added, “That will be the next thing.”

Being an advocate for those with disabilities is a role Ms. Brewer and Mr. Barbanell take very seriously. They both want to open doors and change attitudes. Mr. Barbanell told a story about working as a bus boy at an assisted-living center, where he constantly heard epithets from his co-workers directed toward people with disabilities.

When he found out he was cast in “Amy and the Orphans,” Mr. Barbanell had a message for them on his way out the door: “Take a look at me now.”

[Photo by Nina Westervelt/NY Times]

 Doonesbury — Twitting.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

“Can’t Live Without You” Memories

Ten years ago tonight, “Can’t Live Without You” opened at Manhattan Rep. It was my first — but hopefully not my last — play produced in New York. I made the trip from Miami to see it, and along with my parents who flew in from Toledo and my brother and sister-in-law who came up from Baltimore, and my nephew who came in from the upper East Side, we sat in the tiny (40 seat) theatre above a Duane Reade and watched as Donny, Bobby, Anna, Barbara, and Nick dealt with the changes that come with facing real life even if it’s prompted by a fictional character.

Ten years later “Can’t Live Without You” shoulders on; it placed in The Playgroup’s 2017 playwriting contest, and hope springs eternal for a production in South Florida where the play takes place. As Bobby says, “Hope is my greatest weakness.”

Thank you, Rachel Charlop-Powers, Tom Pilutik, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Will Poston, Mary Fassino, Adam Natale, and Ken Wolf for making this playwright’s dream come true.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Monday, January 8, 2018

Back To Work

Well, that was fun while it lasted.

I got some things accomplished, including clearing out closets and the guest room in order to make room for a housemate who will arrive next week, getting some writing done, catching up with friends, and generally finding out what it’s like to sleep until it’s (almost) light outside.

It seems like I was storing up energy for all the things I’ll be doing this year.  Next weekend (January 13 and 14th is the 6th annual South Florida One-Minute Play Festival and the Art Deco Weekend on Miami Beach.  I will be at both.  In February there’s the Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance on the weekend of February 23-25, which will be my annual infiltration among the rich and famous.  Then on March 2, the world premiere of All Together Now at the Willow Theatre in Boca Raton.  By then I’ll be ready for spring break.

So regular blogging resumes.  What did I miss?

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sunday Reading

Geniuses Don’t Tell — James Fallows in The Atlantic on speaking of intelligence.

I’ve never met or interviewed Donald Trump, though like most of the world I feel amply exposed to his outlooks and styles of expression. So I can’t say whether, in person, he somehow conveys the edge, the sparkle, the ability to connect, the layers of meaning that we usually associate with both emotional and analytical intelligence.But I have had the chance over the years to meet and interview a large sampling of people whom the world views the way Trump views himself. That is, according to this morning’s dispatches, as “like, really smart,” and “genius.”In current circumstances it’s relevant to mention what I’ve learned this way.

Trump tweeted a defense of his mental stability Saturday morning. (Screenshot from Twitter)
(Screenshot from Twitter)

I once spent weeks on interviews for a magazine profile of a man who had won a Nobel prize in medicine while in his forties. Back in my college days, one afternoon our biology professor passed around Dixie cups full of champagne before beginning the day’s classroom lecture, because of news that he had just won the Nobel prize. In decades of reporting on the tech industry, I’ve interviewed people—Gates, Jobs, Musk, Page—whose names have become shorthands for their respective forms of brilliance, plus several more Nobel winners, plus others who are not famous but deserve to be.

During a brief stint of actually working at a tech company, I learned that some of the engineers and coders were viewed as just operating on a different plane: the code they wrote was better, tighter, and more elegant than other people’s, and they could write it much more quickly.I’ve had the chance to interview and help select winners of fancy scholarships. Recently, in Shanghai, I interviewed a Chinese woman now in her early twenties who became the women’s world chess champion at age 16—and we were speaking in English.If you report long enough on politics and public life, even there you will see examples of exceptional strategic, analytic, and bargaining intelligence, along with a lot of clownishness.

In short (as Lloyd Bentsen might once have put it): I’ve known some very smart people. Some very smart people have been friends of mine. And Donald Trump…

***

Here are three traits I would report from a long trail of meeting and interviewing people who by any reckoning are very intelligent.

  • They all know it. A lifetime of quietly comparing their ease in handling intellectual challenges—at the chess board, in the classroom, in the debating or writing arena—with the efforts of other people gave them the message.
  • Virtually none of them (need to) say it. There are a few prominent exceptions, of talented people who annoyingly go out of their way to announce that fact. Muhammed Ali is the charming extreme exception illustrating the rule: he said he was The Greatest, and was. Most greats don’t need to say so. It would be like Roger Federer introducing himself with, “You know, I’m quite graceful and gifted.” Or Meryl Streep asking, “Have you seen my awards?”
  • They know what they don’t know. This to me is the most consistent marker of real intelligence. The more acute someone’s ability to perceive and assess, the more likely that person is to recognize his or her limits. These include the unevenness of any one person’s talents; the specific areas of weakness—social awkwardness, musical tin ear, being stronger with numbers than with words, or vice versa; and the incomparable vastness of what any individual person can never know. To read books seriously is to be staggered by the knowledge of how many more books will remain beyond your ken. It’s like looking up at the star-filled sky.We can think of exceptions—the people who are eminent in one field and try unwisely to stretch that to another. (Celebrated scientists or artists who become ordinary pundits; Michael Jordan the basketball genius becoming Michael Jordan the minor-league baseball player.) But generally the cliche is true: the clearest mark of intelligence, even “genius,” is awareness of one’s limits and ignorance.

***

On the other hand, we have something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more limited someone is in reality, the more talented the person imagines himself to be. Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger put it in the title of their original scientific-journal article, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”

Odds are that the world’s most flamboyant illustration of this dangerous mis-perception, despite his claimed omniscience, would not even recognize the term, nor its ominous implications in his case.

Crumbling Schools — Edwin Rios in Mother Jones on the state of school buildings in America.

This week, as the “bomb cyclone” ravaged cities along the East Coast, schools across the northeastern and southern United States were forced to shut down due to inclement weather and freezing temperatures. But Baltimore schools remained open during the first half of the week despite broken heating systems that caused some classroom temperatures to dip below 40 degrees. And although schools closed on Thursday and Friday, the debate over who’s responsible for the inadequate heating and water systems in the city’s aging school buildings—and how to fix the underlying problem—rages on.The plight of Baltimore students first reached national consciousness on Wednesday, when a video of students discussing the conditions with former NFL linebacker turned elementary school teacher Aaron Maybin went viral. “What’s the day been like for you today?” Maybin asked. “Cold!” the kids, some in jackets and hoodies, shouted together. Parents and teachers shared images of kids bundled in coats and thermostats on social media.On Wednesday, after the district closed four schools and dismissed two others early, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a Facebook video that 60 school buildings—a third of the district—reported problems that included broken boilers and water pipes. The decision to close schools, though, wasn’t made lightly. Santelises noted in the video that in the district, where nearly 87 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, administrators were forced to try to find a balance between the students’ need for food and safety with an impossibly cold learning environment.

It didn’t take long for local politicians to start sparring over the issue: On Thursday, when Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford tweeted that if his kids were in Baltimore’s schools, he would be at the superintendent’s office “seeking answers,” former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, shot back, replying that “all Maryland kids” are Rutherford’s kids. “Will we see you at the Superintendent’s office seeking answers for your kids?” he tweeted. Jealous wrote later on Facebook that Rutherford didn’t show up, adding: “Had he, I would have told him our administrators and teachers are not to blame and that it’s time we fully fund our schools.”

In a statement to CNN, Santelises expressed frustration with the lack of funding for school infrastructure.

“[T]oo many of our buildings have outdated heating systems, poor insulation, and aging pipes as a result of years of inadequate funding for maintenance and facilities improvements,” she said. In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, Kimberly Mooney, a teacher in Baltimore, also argued that the schools’ faltering pipes were just one example of the minimal financial support from the state to resolve Baltimore’s “crumbling infrastructure.”

In 2012, a report commissioned by Baltimore City Public Schools found that 69 percent of the district’s campuses were in “very poor condition,” and it would take an estimated $2.5 billion to bring buildings up to adequate standards. The Baltimore Sunreported on Thursday that the city’s schools have had to return $66 million in state funding to fix heating systems and make building repairs after they delayed projects for too long or the projects became too costly. Lawmakers called for changes to how money was awarded for projects,  and Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan said he was “outraged at the failures in Baltimore City” and blasted officials’ “ineptness and mismanagement” regarding the funding.

The debate in Baltimore reflects longstanding infrastructure woes schools face throughout the country. Beyond roads and highways, these 100,000 public schools—many of which are housed by aging buildings in desperate need of repairs and modernization—make up the second largest infrastructure system in the United States. Yet the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) concluded in its annual report card last year that more than half of the nation’s public schools needed investments just to bring the building conditions to “good.” High-quality school facilities have been linked to better academic achievement for students, fewer suspensions, and better staff retention.

The problem has been brewing for decades. The Government Accountability Office concluded in 1995 that America’s schools needed a collective $112 billion to “repair or upgrade their facilities to good condition.” That number has ballooned to an estimated $145 billion per year, including an additional $46 billion each year on construction and maintenance to bring facilities up to modern standards, according to a 2016 “State of Our Schools” report.

Currently, the federal government spends little on improving school infrastructure, leaving the bulk of the financing to come from the state and local governments. In fact, local taxpayer dollars account for, on average, only 45 percent of funding toward maintenance and operations. But budgets are tight: After the 2008 recession, most states reduced school funding, putting pressure on local districts to make up the difference. In 2015, 29 states still had less overall state funding than they did in the 2008 school year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, even as student enrollment grew.

Meanwhile, the capital funds, which are used to renovate and build new schools and to shore up technological infrastructure, dropped 31 percent from 2008 to 2015. The ASCE 2017 report card noted that the constricted budgets have led to “accelerating deterioration of heating, cooling, and lighting systems.”  And much of the capital construction investment on school facilities—82 percent—comes down to how much school districts can raise from taxpayers, the 2016 “State of Our Schools” joint report noted. “Because the large majority of capital construction is funded by local taxpayers, the ability of school districts to pay for major renewals or new construction is tied to the wealth of their community, perpetuating inequity in school facility conditions,” the authors wrote.

One 2006 study found that projects at schools in wealthier areas spent three times more capital funds than projects in schools in poorer areas—where infrastructure investment is needed the most. In the 2012-2013 school year, 60 percent of schools with some of the poorest student populations, where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, needed repairs. That’s 12 percentage points higher than those in wealthier communities, according to theNational Education Center for Statistics. 

It’s unclear whether President Donald Trump, with his longpromised $1 trillion infrastructure plan, will keep his pledge to “rebuild our roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Last January, Senate Democrats introduced their own 10-year infrastructure proposal that included $75 billion toward shoring up schools, and it’s been lying dormant in Congress ever since. For now, some citizens are taking action—a college student’s GoFundMe campaign to provide space heaters and jackets for the Baltimore students far exceeded its $20,000 goal.

“Hamilton” In London — Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The New Yorker takes in the show back in the land that sparked it.

The night that I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway, in 2015, the Vice-President at the time, Joe Biden, happened to be sitting down the row. It was a mixed blessing: his entourage jammed the bathroom lines at intermission, but his presence lent the musical, about the American Revolution and its aftermath, an additional thrill. Watching Alexander Hamilton rap against a series of antagonistic Vice-Presidents—Adams, Jefferson, Burr—with Biden just a few seats away felt as close as I’d ever come to seeing “Macbeth” in 1606 with Banquo’s supposed descendant, King James I, at my elbow.

Two years and one Presidential election later—and a little more than a year after Biden’s successor, Mike Pence, attended the show and was beseeched from the stage to represent “the diverse America,” as the musical’s multiethnic cast aspires to do—I saw “Hamilton” in London, on its opening night, at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The mood was similarly charged, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the much heralded son of a Pakistani bus driver, shaking hands in the lobby. It felt like a long way from the Obama-Biden years. American and British electorates didn’t follow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s script, voting against the inclusive immigrant narrative and cosmopolitan cultural energy that “Hamilton” had come to embody for many (though not for some left-wing critics, who have labelled the show “Founders Chic” and said that it merely dresses up the Great Men of American history in hip-hop robes). Would it be the same show across the Atlantic, in the era of Trump and Brexit?

Miranda has a knack for cultural synthesis; in a press conference before the London opening, he placed his verse drama in a tradition that runs back to Shakespeare and noted that he’d made a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Bard’s birthplace. He has also played up Hamilton’s ties to Britain’s current orphan hero: Hamilton’s first encounter with Aaron Burr “is basically Harry Potter meeting Draco Malfoy,” he wrote in his notes to the published script. On her way to a post-show reception, Helena Bonham Carter, who played Bellatrix Lestrange in the Potter films, said that she’d like to play Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler, powerfully incarnated at the Victoria Palace by Rachel John. On the day of the opening, the London “Hamilton” company released a promotional video that features a mashup of Angelica’s showstopping “Satisfied” with the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” At intermission, I had to step over the long legs of Keith Richards, who sat next to the Miranda family.

There were a few tweaks: Miranda said in an interview that he’d rewritten a joke about the Vice-Presidency for a British audience that might not know that John Adams once held that office. He also replaced references to Weehawken and the Potomac, since even general geography lacked local purchase. (A line about duelling across the Hudson because “Everything is legal in New Jersey” didn’t get the laugh it earned in Manhattan.) But a “Macbeth” allusion played better in the U.K. than it did Stateside: when a beleaguered Hamilton, “son of a whore and a Scotsman,” sings to Angelica, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day / I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play,” the audience chuckled in appreciation.

“Macbeth” has had a decent run outside the Jacobean court, and “Hamilton,” too, looks poised to thrive through future administrations. When the newcomer Jamael Westman, as a laser-focussed Hamilton, a head taller and a decade younger than Miranda, rapped, “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists? / Give me your position, show me where the ammunition is!” the audience erupted. The ovation for the veteran Giles Terera, a canny Burr, stopped the show after “The Room Where It Happens,” his declaration of lust for insider politics, and Obioma Ugoala brought down the house with George Washington’s preacherly farewell address, “One Last Time.” Alex Lacamoire, the show’s music director, said, at intermission, “I thought about changing a few things, but then I decided, nah, it’s pretty good.” The one difference, he explained, was the speed with which the London actors learned the score. They’d all listened to the original cast recording—the highest-débuting Broadway album on the Billboard 200 chart in half a century—and came into rehearsal with the music memorized. The same seemed to be true for the audience, which obeyed King George III’s command to sing the chorus to his catchy number “You’ll Be Back” along with him. “It’s not common for an audience to come to a première already knowing all the songs,” Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer, told me. “Spotify changed everything.” (Seller added that he expected “Hamilton” to be translated into Spanish and, perhaps, German.)

King George, the home-town antihero played by Michael Jibson, resplendent and glowering at his errant subjects in the audience, got the biggest cheer of the night. (“We did spiff up the King’s outfit,” Miranda said. “He’s got a much bling-ier garter because we were in the shadow of Buckingham Palace and he was looking a bit dingy.”) But Hamilton’s complaint that “Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly” sparked a loud laugh, too, and the revolutionaries’ victory over the British forces at the Battle of Yorktown prompted mid-song applause. “It seemed a bit double-barrelled,” the Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, whose book is the basis for the musical, reflected after the show. “The audience cheered for King George and then enjoyed the satire.” A British fan, waiting for an autograph from Jason Pennycooke, who plays a gleefully showboating Thomas Jefferson, said that the King wasn’t a villain—“he’s just comic relief.”

The most knowing laughter came at King George’s caution to the newly independent colonies: “Oceans rise / Empires fall / It’s much harder when it’s all your call / All alone, across the sea / When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.” Was this a prophecy of Donald Trump’s spiralling isolationism—the travel ban, the broken accords, the looming wall—or an admonition to Brexit leaders fumbling after the British Conservative Party’s recent electoral setback? Miranda made the connection explicit before the show: “When you see the King singing about ‘You’ll be back; it’s harder on your own,’ given what you’re going through with Brexit, those lines ping off in all these different directions.”

A three-star review that ran in the right-wing Daily Mail, an outlier among widespread five-star rapture, asked whether Hamilton, as an architect of national sovereignty, might have actually supported the Leave vote; the other skeptical review, from the Sunday Times, compared Hamilton’s economic élitism to the leadership of the European Union. Barack Obama used to joke that “Hamilton” was the only thing that he and Dick Cheney could agree on; what sounded like a bipartisan endorsement also served as a reminder that works of art are susceptible to more than one ideology. “Hamilton,” after all, is a reflection on the contingency of historical narratives—its final chorus sings, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Chernow said that he hoped the show would remind Britain that, even in the age of Trump, America could represent diversity and inclusion, a force for good.

Doonesbury — No pain…

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking Back/Looking Forward

Here we go with my annual recap and prognostication for the year.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

  • I have no earthly idea what will happen with Trump in the White House.  But I can say that for the first time in my life — and I will hit 65 this year — I am frightened both for myself and my country.
  • At some point in 2017 elements of the electorate will realize that they got conned into voting for Trump and that they were played for fools.  The backlash will begin when they find out he can’t follow through on his bullshit promises, and reach a peak when they find out that repealing Obamacare and deporting 11 million people effects them personally.  When it happens, it will not be pretty.

I’m still frightened.  Nothing — not the Mueller investigation, the revelations coming from various sources, or chatter about impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment — has calmed my fear that he is still capable of doing something that puts us and the rest of the world in peril.  As for the second bullet point, we are seeing faint glimmers that disillusionment is happening in the nooks and crannies of America where he can do no wrong, and no amount of tweeting and bullshit from Fox News can turn around his dismal approval numbers.  But that just means that fully 1/3 of the electorate still approve of him.  Even his failures — Obamacare yet survives and the deportations haven’t happened — haven’t dimmed the hopes of the dim.

  • There will be a downturn in the economy thanks to the cyclical nature of economics and the instability in the market by the Twitter-In-Chief. He will, of course, blame it on Barack Obama.

Obviously I’m not an economist because if I was I would have known that the economy lags behind and the continued growth and low unemployment rate are a result of Obama’s policies.  Of course Trump is taking credit for it.

  • A year from now the Syrian civil war will still be dragging on.  ISIS will still be a factor, and if Trump does what he says he will do with the Iran nuclear deal, expect to see them re-start their nuclear program.  “Dr. Strangelove” will be seen by historians as a documentary.
  • The refugee crisis will continue and fester once nativists and right-wing elements win majorities in western European countries.

The Syrian civil war goes on but it’s not dominating the news cycles, and ISIS is a lessening factor.  I don’t know if it’s sheer exhaustion.  The refugee crisis goes on but with a lesser magnitude.

  • Our diplomatic thaw with Cuba will freeze as the attempts to end the blockade will not get through Congress. Only until Trump gets permission to open a casino in Varadero Beach will there be any progress.

Trump rescinded some of the Obama administration’s changes in our relations with Cuba but not enough to return us to Cold War status.  The blockade, such as it is, enters its 57th year.

  • Violence against our fellow citizens will continue and take on a more xenophobic tone as the white supremacists think they are now in control. The attorney general will do nothing to put an end to it because, in his words, “they had it coming.”

Charlottesville and Trump’s tacit support of the Nazis proved that to be true, more’s the pity.

  • We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. 2016 was an especially painful year. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

I lost two uncles and a nephew since I wrote that.

  • The Tigers will finish second in their division.

They traded Justin Verlander.  Yeah, he helped the Astros win the World Series, but…

Okay, now on to predictions.

  • There will be indictments at a very high level in the administration as the Mueller investigation rumbles on.  Plea bargains and deals will be made and revelations will come forth, and by summer there will be genuine questions about whether or not the administration will survive.  But there won’t be a move to impeach Trump as long as there are Republican majorities in the Congress, and invoking the 25th Amendment is a non-starter.
  • The Democrats will make great gains in the mid-term elections in November.  This is a safe bet because the party out of power usually does in the first mid-term of new president.  The Democrats will take back the Senate and narrow the gap in the House to the point that Speaker Paul Ryan with either quit or be so powerless that he’s just hanging around to collect pension points.  (No, he will not lose his re-election bid.)
  • There will be a vacancy on the Supreme Court, but it won’t happen until after the mid-terms and Trump’s appointment will flail as the Democrats in the Senate block the confirmation on the grounds that the next president gets to choose the replacement.
  • There will be irrefutable proof that the Russians not only meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, but they’ve had a hand in elections in Europe as well and will be a factor in the U.S. mid-terms.  Vladimir Putin will be re-elected, of course.
  • Raul Castro will figure out a way to still run Cuba even if he steps down as president, and there will be no lessening of the authoritarian rule.
  • The U.S. economy will continue to grow, but there will be dark clouds on the horizon as the deficit grows thanks to the giveaways in the GOP tax bill.  If the GOP engineers cuts to entitlement programs and the number of uninsured for healthcare increases, the strain on the economy will be too much.
  • This “America First” foreign policy will backfire.  All it does is tell our allies “You’re on your own.”  If we ever need them, they’re more likely to turn their backs on us.
  • The white supremacist movement will not abate.  Count on seeing more violence against minorities and more mass shootings.
  • A viable Democratic candidate will emerge as a major contender for the 2020 election, and it will most likely be a woman.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren is considered to be the default, but I wouldn’t rule out Sen. Kamala Harris of California or Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York just yet.  (Sen. Gillibrand would drive Trump even further around the bend.  She was appointed to the Senate to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat when she became Secretary of State in 2009.)
  • On a personal level, this will be a busy year for my work in theatre with a full production of “All Together Now” opening in March and several other works out there for consideration.  I will also be entering my last full year of employment in my present job (retirement happens in August 2019) but I’ll keep working.
  • People and fads we never heard about will have their fifteen minutes.
  • I’ll do this again next year.

Okay, friends; it’s your turn.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017