Report: There Goes the Neighborhood

May 8, 2019

By Robert Israel

A strange thing happened on my way to see a show last week: I got lost.

I was en route to the latest Gold Dust Orphans show, The Ebonic Woman, at The Machine nightclub on Boylston Street in the Fenway when I became disoriented. I had not anticipated the stark changes in the neighborhood. For a while, I was adrift, there were no familiar landmarks in sight. Finally, thanks to a bouncer I met who was standing at the entrance to a bar, I was directed to my destination.

Turns out I wasn’t the only person dazed. I queried several people waiting in line to see the Gold Dust show, and, they, too, had a difficult time navigating the “new” Fenway neighborhood.

It’s only going to get more confusing. Developers will soon raze the block where The Machine, a long-standing gay nightclub, is nested in a homely building just a stone’s throw from the green and grassy Emerald Necklace.

Ryan Landry founded the Gold Dust Orphans over two decades ago. He and his rag-tag troupe of thespians have long called The Machine their home (except in the spring and summer, when they relocate to Provincetown). He’s always had a Boston performance space to return to.

Not anymore.

“I saw it coming three years ago, when there was a frenzy of development in the Fenway,” he told me in an interview this week. “Now the neighborhood looks like a corporate mall.”

The Fenway looks like a mall, but it is really being transformed into a lucrative adult playground, with an expansive food court. If you take a leisurely stroll from Kenmore Square on a weekend night toward Fenway Park — it doesn’t matter if the Red Sox are playing a home game or not — the local boutique-ish venues are raking in the greenbacks. Long lines of revelers wait to gain entry at the House of Blues, to play in Lucky Strike bowling tournaments at Jillian’s, or chug shots of bar whiskey and pints of draught beer at Oliver’s (just one of many watering holes in the area). Hoards of free-spending, freewheeling folks (overloaded with tourists) pack these places to their maximum legal capacities.

The Fenway is fragrant as well, now that recreational marijuana is legal. Walk down Landsdowne, or Haviland, or Kilmarock, or Jersey, or Van Ness streets: Mary Jane smoke blows and billows. You might just get a contact high.

The other night, when I finally made it past the cordoned off, open trenches of construction, I found a re-vamped version of Boylston Street populated with chain restaurants – Regina’s Pizza, Tasty Burger – open to please the tenants and ballpark fans who live in the new, expensive, glistening high-rise apartment complexes that line the street.

A scene from the Gold Dust Orphans latest show, “The Ebonic Woman.”

Does theater fit into this profit-oriented civic operation? “We were getting our new show ready, and I found out that the developer had plans to raze the block,” Landry recalled. “So, I called Joyce Linehan, policy director at Mayor Martin Walsh’s office, to ask her if she knew of any spaces for us to rent. To my surprise, she said that she had talked to the developers and they were open to discussing a project to build a theater space in the new building that could house us. I was shocked.”

(An email and telephone call I placed to Ms. Linehan requesting comment on this story went unanswered at the time of writing this report).

According to National Real Estate Investor, Scape, the British developer, expects to build a 15- story building to house approximately 500 private dorms for graduate students. Scape CEO Andrew Flynn told National Real Estate that “…we’re very pleased to have planted our flag here in Boston…we think that our brand is very well aligned with Boston and a lot of the core principles that Boston has really exhibited in recent years, including a real spirit of innovation and entrepreneurism and a deep knowledge economy.”

But what about housing an existing — and thriving — gay bar and a gay theater troupe?

“To my surprise, the Scape developers told Linehan that they were open to building a space for us to perform in,” Landry said. “So, we announced we’d have a meeting to discuss this with the community. Word got out, and various groups showed up to voice what turns to be more about their personal greedy designs to turn the proposed new space into a ‘gathering space’ for them. We couldn’t bring everyone together. It fell apart.”

Due to this community rancor, Landry fears that the developer will back out now with their proposed theater project.

“It’s because everyone wants a piece,” Landry concluded. “No one sees the bigger picture of working together.”

In the mean time, while audiences clamor to see the Gold Dust Orphans’ new production at The Machine, it looks as if the troupe will not have a future home in Boston. That might change — in a city known for fast-tracking changes. But, for now, the Gold Dust Orphans are truly orphans, thespian outcasts in a rapidly corporatizing city.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine, on May 8, 2019.

Advertisements

Practicing Faith in a Dangerous Time

May 2, 2019
tree20of20life_0

Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., where a gunman opened fire in November, 2018, killing 11 worshippers and wounding 6 others.

By Robert Israel

When my fellow Jews were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018 I received messages and calls. Many of them were from strangers, like the man in New Bedford, Mass., a Christian., who wrote that he had read my newspaper articles and said he would pray for me and for “the Jewish victims I mourn like my own kin.”

When a gunman opened fire in Poway, California this year, killing a congregant and wounding others at a Jewish house of worship there, fewer messages arrived, proving once again we collectively become benumbed to repeated instances of gun violence, to horror, to senseless loss.

 

But I am not inured to these occurrences. My youth was spent with neighbors, grandparents and parents – many of them immigrants and Holocaust survivors who escaped from anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. I practiced Judaism casting a wary eye on the street while training my other eye on a prayer book. In my adult years, these exaggerated fears showed signs of breaking down. I attended a community event like the Black-Jewish Seder where African Americans and Jews shared the bread of affliction (matzoh) and celebrated our commonalities. We sang songs like, “Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan,” an African American spiritual that exclaims the joys of being liberated from the chains of enslavement.

Recently, I stood in solidarity with my neighbors at Arlington Mass. Town Hall after an arsonist’s attempt to set fire to the home of my Jewish neighbor was foiled. A similar fire was set and extinguished the week before, in nearby Needham, Mass. Culprits in both instance have yet to be apprehended.

But while we may be freed from the chains of slavery, we remain enslaved by shackles of fear. We cast wary eyes, fearful our communities will face murderous violence as it did in Pittsburg, or in Poway. We practice our faith in a dangerous time. We wonder, aloud, in the words of Psalm 137:1-4: “How we can sing praise to the Lord while we live in a strange land?”

Yet I yearn to live unencumbered, to live in a nation as a neighbor who cares for his neighbors and is cared for by them. How do we achieve this? Do install metal detectors at the entrance to our mosques, churches, and synagogues? Do we turn these houses of worship into citadels with armed sentries like they do in cities throughout Europe?

Prof. Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University suggests Jews accept our status as “others” in society – the way African Americans and immigrants have come to accept their status — and that in so doing we learn to see how the homogeneous white majority views. This, he believes, is an effective exercise in becoming more prepared to react, to respond, and to rally.

I’ve known this “other” status all my life and insist on moving past it. Community gatherings where we sing in unison are well intentioned, but are often only one-offs. Let’s build on the grass-roots momentum created by these gatherings with campaigns to educate all citizens – not just schoolchildren. Let’s schedule forums throughout the year to keep this issue in the forefront where civic leaders and law enforcement personnel provide updates about potential threats and how to recognize them. Let’s confront those who endanger civil discourse with their vile hate speech by advocating for and passing legislation to further limit this incendiary speech. Let’s renew our efforts for gun control. Let’s practice effective surveillance at all houses of worship — not only during holy days and not only with electronic devices — by creating visible citizen patrols throughout the year. And while we’re at it, let’s liaise with international efforts so we’re all connected to protect our communities – at home and abroad — to prevent future calamities.

**

This article has been updated to reflect recent developments in Arlington and Needham, Mass., involving suspected incidents of Semitic arson.

 

Book Review: “Mr. Straight Arrow”

April 29, 2019

By Robert Israel

The title of this “study” of pioneering American journalist and novelist John Hersey (1914-1993) is a long one, obviously meant to draw in readers who are acquainted with his celebrated non-fiction volume Hiroshima, but never knew much about the man who wrote it.

It wasn’t always so. Hersey was once a household name. He was read by legions of men and women who subscribed to Life magazine, or who turned to his front page dispatches cabled during World War II to newspapers like the New York Herald Tribune.

Today, many of these readers — and the publications — are gone. The reason Hersey is important now, author Jeremy Treglown states, is that he labored “to establish positively, painstakingly, and sympathetically, what the facts of a case were.” In today’s Trumpy parlance, he wrote the opposite of “fake news.”

But there is another reason: Hersey, who enjoyed a lucrative 50-plus year writing career, and who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his novel A Bell for Adano, took the “straight arrow” approach: stories were never about him, they were always about his subjects. He granted only two interviews during his lifetime: one to Publisher’s Weekly, the other to The Paris Review. He insisted that no biography be written about him. His daughter, Brook, executor of his estate, consented to be interviewed for Treglown’s book; she did not authorize its publication.

I can attest to Hersey’s taciturnity. A few years before his death, we met at his home in Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard. I had entered a journalism competition earlier that year and returned stateside after spending nine weeks in Japan interviewing hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, for stories that appeared in several papers. Hersey was one of the judges. The editor at the Chuoku Shimbun, Hiroshima’s daily newspaper, mailed Hersey my pieces. When I returned home, he sent me a note inviting me to chat with him at his waterfront home.

“Follow the path from the Schamonchi and cut across the lawn until you see a boat with the name ‘Barbara’ on it,” Hersey said on the telephone. His voice was friendly. But once I arrived at his house, he was prickly. No, he said, he would not answer my questions. Instead, he would ask them. What had I discovered in Japan? How were the survivors at the Atomic Bomb Hospital? What did the doctors tell me about radiation sickness — keloid scars and worse — that plagued the survivors? We talked for a couple hours. After lunch, he sent me on my way.

Hersey’s reception was not totally unexpected. My father, a decorated officer in the U.S. Army during WWII, treated me like an enlisted man in his platoon. I received a brusque reception whenever we (infrequently) got together. Reading Treglown’s well-researched book — decades after meeting Hersey —  did more than generate empathic connections: it helped me understand why Hersey maintained such a similar steely demeanor. It was a projection of his journalistic ethos.

Hersey was born to missionary parents in China and attended a school where the teacher routinely beat boys who did not obey. His family returned stateside, he entered Yale, and became a private secretary (read: errand boy) to Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature (who was an unrepentant drunk). As a WWII foreign correspondent for Life, he survived four plane crashes, including being aboard a plane that fell into the ocean, capsized, and sank (he somehow swam to safety). He witnessed the American invasion of Sicily, writing for Time. He taught at Yale, but happily retreated to a home in Key West during the winter, insisting that it was the work that mattered above all.

Journalist and novelist John Hersey — just the facts.

Hersey returned to Japan to write an afterword for Hiroshima forty years after the book appeared in a single issue of The New Yorker magazine. When I was in Japan, one of the survivors had a framed photo of Hersey he had autographed for her. It occupied an honored place on her shelf. His inscription: “As if on August 6, 1946.”

I asked Hersey why he wrote that inscription when I visited him in Vineyard Haven. It was the only question he answered: “The stories the survivors told me touched me. They are always with me.”

In today’s media-glutted, branding-crazed world, when journalistic ethics (and lives) are endangered here around the world, Hersey emerges in this book as a disciplined writer who held steadfast to an admirably singular goal: to tell stories truthfully, at all costs.

**

A previous version of this book review appeared in the April 29, 2019 issue of The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston).

Interview: Playwright Paula Vogel

April 27, 2019
A scene from the Huntington Theatre Company production of “Indecent.” Photo: Carol Rosegg

By Robert Israel

My last interview with playwright Paula Vogel took place in 2009, when the Huntington Theatre Company staged her play A Civil War Christmas. This week, a decade later, we spoke about her new play Indecent — her retelling of the 1923 controversy that erupted when Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance was banned on Broadway, its cast arrested on charges of obscenity. Indecenthad its New York premiere in 2016; nominated for several Tony awards, it reaped a single Tony presented to the play’s director, Rebecca Taichman. A Center Theatre Group and Huntington Theatre Company co-production of Indecent (at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue) runs from April 26 through May 25.

First, the back-story: Vogel, 67, lives in Wellfleet with her wife, author Ann Fausto-Sterling. Vogel is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, an Obie, and the Robert Chesley award, among others. Now retired from full-time teaching at Brown and Yale (but not retired from what she calls “guest teaching”), she has, much like the early days of her career, been a champion for more resources being allocated to playwrights.

“I have a not-so secret strategy,” Vogel said, “and that is that I talk to my students as peers. When they leave my class, I tell them they leave as my colleagues. I treat the classroom as a workshop. I provoke students. I tell them that talent is not a survival of the fittest, it is a collaboration.”

Vogel’s former students include Pulitzer winners Nilo Cruz, Quiera Alegria Hudes, and Lynn Nottage, Gina Gionfriddo, a Pulitzer finalist, and HTC artistic director Peter DuBois. DuBois told Brown Alumni Magazine Vogel admonished him and his classmates “to never romanticize the theater….There’s a battle out there. Think of yourselves as generals.“ Indeed, Vogel uses the military term “boot camp” to describe a specific approach to teaching. Two years ago she offered a free course in playwriting in New York City to 30 students – they signed up on a first come, first served basis –- to learn how to write a short play.

“A ‘boot camp’ can be taught during the week, or during a weekend,” Vogel explained. “But I also teach what I call a ‘bake off’ – a short play that everyone writes on the same theme. During my last ‘bake off’ in North Carolina, I gathered around 60 people in the room and told them they were going to write a short play that had a ghost, a statue, a master, a servant, sword play, and a scene of coitus interruptus. They had 48 hours to write it. No editing. No criticism. What happened was a room full of students bursting with tremendous energy.”

Paula Vogel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

For Indecent, Vogel drew on her exposure to Yiddish as a youngster growing up in Washington, D.C., as well as on the experiences of director Rebecca Taichman, who encountered Yiddish through a relative in Canada.

“The Yiddish of Sholem Asch was not the High Yiddish of poet I.L. Pertez, or novelist Issac Bashevis Singer,” Vogel says. “It was the Yiddish spoken in the homes, in the factories, the Yiddish I heard at my grandmother’s knee when she told me words I wasn’t supposed to repeat in polite company.”

Indeed, this is the same Yiddish, or mama loshn(mother tongue), I heard spoken as a boy growing up among immigrant Jews who labored as “sweaters” in the schmatte (garment) shops in Providence, Rhode Island.

One of the first jobs playwright Asch had, Vogel recounted, was “writing letters for newly arrived immigrant Jews…he wanted to become a rabbi, but he ended up a playwright (and novelist) instead.”

One of the challenges that Vogel recalled she and Taichman faced with the play was finding a way to share their feeling about the Yiddish language with contemporary audiences. Yiddish was considered coarse by many, and it was considerably diminished when the Jews that spoke it were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

“As a youngster, I grew up among people who experienced the Shoah (Holocaust), and who knew that the world would never be same,” Vogel said. “Yiddish is above all a language of yearning, a language of anxiety. I believe we’ve worked hard to communicate that love to audiences. We’ve had productions in Omaha, Nebraska and in Boise, Idaho, where Yiddish has rarely been spoken. Audiences there have said they feel the emotion we are trying to convey.”

Soon after the Boston run of Indecent, Vogel will be “guest teaching” at UCLA. She expects to return to Wellfleet in time to see the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown offer its first Women’s Playwrights Series. This new “workshop” series grew out of a challenge she presented to the FAWC board when she accepted an award from them in 2017.

“There is new leadership there now, “ Vogel said of the Center. “One of the great joys of my life is to make sure theater and the studying of theater is more accessible. And now that’s happening right here in my own backyard.”

**

A previous version of this interview appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on April 22, 2019.

IRNE @23: Boisterous Irreverance

April 11, 2019
Victor Almanzar and Kyle Vincent Terry in the Huntington Theater production of “Man in the Ring.” One of the big winners in last night’s IRNE Awards. Photo: Courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company.

 

By Robert Israel

It is an annual rite of spring. Last night, from the dais at the Independent Reviewers of New England(IRNE) ceremony in Brookline, I joined fellow judges to hand out awards for excellence in local theater. I surveyed a boisterous crowd of revelers: thespians, directors, choreographers, lighting and set designers, publicists, and sundry well-wishers who represent the wide range of large, mid-size, and fringe theater companies in greater Boston and New England. Admission is free. All come to share their passion for the stage (and to guzzle spirits from two cash bars).

IRNE welcomes all comers, from the grand to the minuscule. The judges encourage dialogue, and we take action on issues. At the 22nd IRNE ceremony, a former IRNE critic was asked to resign amidst allegations he had sexually violated a young male actor. This year, bickering revolved around whether a jukebox musical — Moulin Rougewhich ushered in a new era for the lavishly renovated Emerson Colonial Theatre — should have been included among the nominees. Several attendees voiced opposition; others heralded the pick. (Broadway in Boston brings in a vigorous roster of national touring productions, and they have been among the nominees for many years.)  My take: among the 54 categories, IRNE can surely consider the merits of these shows, too, and view them as viable contenders.

The IRNE awards afford me the opportunity to greet many in the theater community I would not otherwise have a chance to talk to. As a reviewer, I see dozens of shows each year (Is there a “theater season”? More like a Mobius strip of productions asking to be reviewed). The ceremony is not only about celebrating achievement; it is also an opportunity to mourn losses (veteran IRNE critic Guy Giampapa died at age 91 last month).  And to welcome arrivals to the theater scene, such New Rep’s new artistic director, Michael J. Bobbit.

The usual rumblings (and pesky white noise from a faulty sound system) aside, the IRNE event did what it has done for decades: cast a warm glow on a vibrant local theater scene and those who are dedicated to entertain, astonish, and inspire.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on April 9, 2019.

From Both Sides of the Desk: Content Marketing 101

March 20, 2019
rumpelstiltskin-2

Content marketing: it’s not spinning straw into gold.

By Robert Israel

“I can’t wait to get to Boston to teach you how to quickly develop content that will attract more customers!” an over-caffeinated man I’ll call Content Huckster proclaimed in a YouTube video.

Content Huckster is pushing his own form of content marketing (there are many versions out there).

Before we discuss Mr. Huckster, let’s first define content marketing.

Content marketing is a marketing tool that employs online materials to promote a specific brand, to tell the story about that brand’s services.

Back to Mr. Huckster: effective content marketing cannot be developed “quickly.” It draws on time-honored basics that apply to creating all content.

These basics are the skills applied to gathering information, editing messages, rewriting messages, applying these messages to an understanding your clients’ needs, and further testing those messages for resonance and relevance.

Without applying these basics, I suspect what Mr. Huckster is teaching are shortcuts. What’s ultimately frustrating about shortcuts is that they only get you part of the way there. If you want to be successful at content marketing, you need to get at the substance of the message. No quick sell artist promoting a quick sell approach is going to teach you to do that. It takes time. It requires an investment in your message.

Ask yourself: once you learn the shortcut, will you be able to apply it to other forms of written communications – white papers, web content, business proposals, communiqués with internal and external audiences?

All of these aforementioned types of communications vehicles – once again – do not happen without an investment of time, energy, ideas. If you think you can do it quickly – I once met a potential client who expected me to  “bang out content in twenty minutes” – you are mistaken.

It’s like expecting a content writer/marketer to be Rumplestiltskin, the gnome from the story by the Brothers Grimm, who could spin straw into gold. Alchemists have been looking for shortcut wizardry — a special sauce, a formula — for years without success. Content evangelists like Mr. Huckster would like to bask in that luster. But what they are promoting is fool’s gold.

Long before the word “content” was applied to writing and publishing and marketing, writers, editors and, yes, marketers were working in a methodical way to hone their messages. They discovered that the discipline they applied to their craft could have many uses. They found that it resonated with their clients and their clients’ audiences. Furthermore, it elevated their clients’ product and message so that it achieved respectability. Flash in the pan is fine for a quick nibble. But if you want a full-meal, it takes time to prepare it and when you serve it, it will leave you and your dinner guests more satisfied.

Content creation — whether it be for web content, marketing, or earmarked for other publication formats — is a disciplined process. When you use it and use it well, it is a proven method that will yields the proven results. (Remember the expression “best in class”?)

So, the next time you hear that the Content Huckster is trying to sell you an approach to content marketing that will employ quick shortcuts to save you time and money, look closely at what he’s hawking. If it sounds like he’s promoting an approach to content marketing that can spin straw into gold, it’s time to move on.

**

For an evaluation of your editorial project, contact Robert Israel at risrael_97@yahoo.com. 

“From Both Sides of the Desk” is a series on how to improve communications, marketing, public relations, and publishing as told from the point of view of an editor, who sits on one side of the desk, and those pitching ideas/stories/concerns, who sits on the other side of the desk.

Appreciation: W. S. Merwin, 1927-2019

March 18, 2019

The late W.S. Merwin.

By Robert Israel

Written 53 years before his death this past week, at the age 91 at his home in Peahi, Hawaii, American poet W.S. Merwin shared a revealing self-assessment:

It sounds unconvincing to say When I was young
Though I have long wondered what it would be like
To be me now
No older at all it seems from here
As far from myself as ever

— In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year

Merwin’s observation is not wholly self-deprecating: he insists that readers see that pitiless self-awareness brings with it the responsibility to go beyond our appetite for arrogant self-importance.  His prolific body of work dramatized this break from the self — he focused on ecological, mythological, and confessional themes. In the poem’s final lines, Merwin wrote:

There is nothing the matter with speech
Just because it lent itself
To my uses
Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning

Exhibiting talent as a writer early in his life, Merwin was, from the get-go, driven to use poetry to achieve a higher moral purpose — his version of tikkun olam, the Hebrew expression meaning to repair the world. He remained politically as well as artistically motivated all his life, often proclaiming that activism was far more important than all the awards his writing garnered, including serving as U.S. Poet Laureate and winning two Pulitzer Prizes (1971, 2009).

I first heard Merwin read his work as a student in Providence in the ’70s at an event where he announced he had donated his Pulitzer Prize winnings to Alan Blanchard, a painter who was blinded during an anti-Vietnam protest rally in Berkeley, California, in 1969. Like his fellow poet and former Princeton roommate, the late poet Galway Kinnell, Merwin was a dedicated pacifist. In that period he stood alongside the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin and the late poet/activist Philip Berrigan, S.J., and many others, participating in public events and demonstrations that denounced the Vietnam War.

Born in New Jersey before the Great Depression and coming of age in the years preceding World War II, Merwin was initially influenced by American transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Thoreau. Like the late Mary Oliver, Merwin turned to the natural world for solace and inspiration. He often quoted Thoreau’s line from his essay “Walking” — “in wildness is the preservation of the world”  — to suggest how we, as humans, best live our lives by preserving (rather than exploiting) the planet as a sacred trust for for future generations.  After Merwin’s passing, only a handful of American poets from his generation remain: the 88 year old Gary Snyder lives in the Pacific Northwest; Lawrence Ferlinghetti resides in San Francisco and turns 100 on March 24.

According to Lee Imada, editor of the Maui News, Merwin transformed his 18 acres of denuded land in Peahi, Maui into “a forest with 2,750 palms,” planting, pruning and nurturing the palms himself as part of a daily routine. Imada described Merwin’s home, which is surrounded by the verdant overgrowth, as a “post-and-pier and split-level built into the side of a hill with open beams.” That home and its acreage are protected from development in perpetuity by a “conservation easement with the Hawaiian Island Land Trust signed in 2014.” A foundation has also been established for writers to stay in Merwin’s home in the years to come.

Perhaps the best collection of Merwin’s work, which spans decades, is Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press). In that 2005 collection “For the Anniversary of my Death” serves as a fitting epigraph:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
**
A previous version of this piece first appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston), on March 18, 2019.

“The Little Foxes” — American Greed Triumphant

March 4, 2019

By Robert Israel

The Lyric Stage of Boston production of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 three-act drama The Little Foxes (now through March 17) features a strong ensemble cast of ten players who are given every opportunity to make an indelible impression. Under Scott Edmiston’s insightful direction, and attired in shimmering costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley, the cast faithfully serves Hellman’s imaginative world of schemers and victims.

The plot is set in a specific milieu: post-Civil War South, circa 1900, its airs of polished gentility barely masking the rise of raw capitalistic greed. This is the Gilded Age, when America, according to Theodore Dreiser, took its tragic fall by rejecting its idealistic roots and embracing an unapologetic materialism.

The production is led by veteran lead players Anne Gottlieb as Regina Giddens and Remo Airaldi as Benjamin Hubbard. The cast does not merely support the staging’s lead players, but reinforces their power by dramatizing how these dominating personalities shape, distort, and manipulate those around them. Edmiston times the movements of the connivers and their marks like a chess game, with kings and queens beheading pawns — or pushing them off the board. The result is an evening that is taut, tense, and eerily reflective of our own uneasy, pernicious times.

This production follows two superb productions of classic American realism previously delivered by Edmiston. Both plays were penned by Eugene O’Neill (Anna Christie, last year at the Lyric, and Long Day’s Journey into Night at New Rep in 2012). By choosing to present this melodrama by Hellman, he dares to ask, in his director’s note, why a woman playwright of her stature — a contemporary of Tennessee Williams, O’Neill, and Arthur Miller – has not been admitted “to that esteemed men’s club.”

It’s a viable question: there are few productions of her dramatic works staged today, her male contemporaries bypassing her in terms of  attention. The last time I saw her work produced was as a student in Providence in 1976 (Hellman died at age 79 in 1984, at her home in Martha’s Vineyard), via a double-bill of Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest at Trinity Rep, under Adrian Hall’s direction.  Hopefully, the Hellman drought on American stages has come to an end.

The narrative is one of decline and dreamed of return to glory. A family that once enjoyed the trappings of wealth is now reduced to resorting to backroom schemes to reclaim the glitter and the gold. (Their hunger for the trappings of the good life is voracious). Brothers Benjamin (Airaldi) and Oscar (Will McGarrahan) have already curled their tentacles in a death grip around what is left of the family money, taking advantage of sister Regina (Gottlieb) who grovels on the periphery, relying on her husband Horace’s (Craig Mathers) money, because she was not named in her father’s will.

Rosa Procaccino, Amelia Broome, Remo Airaldi in the Lyric Stage Company production of “The Little Foxes.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

Without disclosing the plot further, suffice it to say that Regina is a Darwinian tigress who knows how to stalk her prey. She is not about to allow the shenanigans of others to bring her down and, through a series of cunning maneuvers, spreads her claws. Gottlieb is mesmerizing as the deftly cold-hearted conniver. Trussed up satin gowns may swish smoothly across the Lyric Stage space, but do not be fooled. Regina will not be denied her prize; beneath those frills and sashes she harbors the raw emotion, nerve, and muscle she needs to collect the lucre that she sees as hers.

The supporting cast contributes mightily to the intensity of the avarice, with special kudos to Ameilia Broome as Birdie Hubbard, Rosa Procaccino as Alexandra Giddens, Cheryl D. Singleton as Adele, Bill Mootos as William Marshall, and Kinson Theodoris as Cal. Praise should also go to lighting designer Karen Perlow for creating a beautifully nuanced atmosphere of light and shadow — chiaroscuro is rarely so effectively unobtrusive.

Hellman once declared (in an interview in the The Paris Review) she wanted to write a trilogy about this fascinating Southern family. She only finished two scripts, however. So, with the success of this play, perhaps next season Edmiston will agree to stage Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, a prequel, (written nine years after the success of Little Foxes), which looks at the same family in 1880, twenty years before. After all, our current crop of ‘little foxes” show no signs of letting up.

**

A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston), on March 1, 2019.

At the MFA: Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico

February 17, 2019

 

Graciela Iturbide,  “House of Death, Mexico City.” Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

By Robert Israel

Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (through May 12) is generous and engaging exhibit of the work of a powerful photographer who casts a penetrating,  yet compassionate, eye on life and death. Besides its aesthetic value, the exhibit arrives at a crucial political time. Congressional debates on sealing our southern border place a discomforting focus on our marginalization of Mexicans. Iturbide’s work is the best argument for why diplomacy is a vital imperative: her photographs show us why we must be connected to, not separated from, our southern neighbors.

Iturbide works in black and white. Her primary subject is Mexico’s indigenous people who live hardscrabble, often impoverished lives, and who practice centuries-old rituals rooted in their mystical Aztec heritage, Christianity, folklore, farming, and animal husbandry. These rituals are universal, proof that current ‘borders’ are man-made, artificial demarcations that must be transcended.

A 77 year-old Mexico City-born photographer, Iturbide studied with the celebrated late 20th century Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. She also credits the late Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz as a poetic influence. Her vision goes beyond stereotypes — her people are not ‘salt-of-the-earth’ but odd and superstitious, enigmatic expressions of humanity.

Iturbide tells us (in a video interview included in the exhibit) that she prefers to capture her subjects by surprise. Whenever possible, she takes her pictures serendipitously. The late 20th century American photographer Walker Evans who said that his best work came to him unplanned. Also like Evans, Iturbide seeks out subjects she perceives as threatened, their way of life endangered in some way. She avoids scripting or posing her figures into formal portraits. By catching them off-guard, she hopes to capture their uninhibited vitality. Furthermore, she insists we look on these men, women, and children with pitiless clarity.

Because Iturbide is non-judgmental, her work is not for the squeamish. Several of the photos in the exhibit look, in detail, at the bodies of slaughtered goats, chickens, iguanas, and alligators. I did not find these images repugnant; in fact, I was drawn to them. They reminded me of my youth, spent in an observant Jewish community, when I was taken to a kosher butcher shop and witnessed the weekly slaughtering of live poultry. Much like the Mexicans in Iturbide’s photographs, I practiced the ritual preparation of the slaughtered animal according to the laws of kashruth, passed down to me by my Russian-Jewish grandparents.

Graciela Iturbide, “The Little Goat’s Death Before the Slaughter.” Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The exhibit is heavily palled by images of death. There’s a striking photo of an abandoned corpse desecrated by a flock of flesh-eating birds. His disheveled body lies on a cemetery path. Ironically, the macabre scene is accented by gallows humor. The corpse is dressed in a formal black funeral suit (as in prints by Mexican caricaturist Jose Guadalupe Posada); it looks if the dead man had been running toward his own open grave — but he didn’t quite make it.

In Iturbide’s work, the living and the dying are often joined at the (exposed) skeletal hip. There are photos of earthbound angels, complete with plastic gossamer wings, as well as parents carrying a child’s casket to the cemetery. Throughout the exhibit there is a mysterious Manichean tension, a contest between darkness and light that generates wonder.

Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in his epitaph, wrote that his life’s mission was to “cast a cold eye on life, on death.” Iturbide follows in the poet’s footsteps, though with a caveat: she acknowledges  — and faithfully captures — the cool warmth that emanates from the people of her beloved homeland.

**

A pervious version of this article appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine, (Boston), on Feb. 15, 2019.

From Both Sides of the Desk: Pesky Press Releases

February 8, 2019
pressrelease-image-1024x682

Press releases needn’t be pesky or bothersome to editors. Here’s how.

By Robert Israel

Why do so many press releases wind up in the trash?

What can public relations professionals do to prevent them from being scrapped?

Consider:  I receive approximately 15 and 20 electronic press releases a day, seven days a week. I get announcements from vendors hawking products; dispatches from news services and special interest groups; polling results from politicians; solicitations from fundraisers; announcements from hotels I have visited and from those I’ve never stepped a foot in. Most releases are spiffy, dressed for success: they come with charts, links, videos, zip-zip graphics.

I follow Groucho Marx’s advice: Never join a club that would have me as a member. I never sign up for releases. Yes, I press “unsubscribe” – but to no avail. For me, and many editors/reporters like me, press releases can be, to quote Sylvia Plath, “white and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.”

Other reporters and editors I’ve queried about this tell me they have similar reactions to the press materials they receive via email. We don’t want to be rude. We just don’t have the time to sift through the volume of press release material we receive on a daily basis. And since we never asked to receive press releases in the first place, disposing of them is as easy as a click of a mouse.

But that’s not the response you are looking for. If you want your press release to hit the mark, consider a different approach:

  1. Subject Line Identification: Make better use of the subject line. If you must send a release, let’s say, whose aim is to saturate the market-space (to get your name out there), write “General Release” in the subject alongside the topic. Give the recipient the heads up to determine if he or she should read it. If your release is more urgent, put that in your subject line. (For example: Media Alert: Tickets Sales Exceed Demand; 100 Tickets Available).
  2. Practice Copy Economy: Use headlines efficiently and boldly; use sub-headlines to summarize. Further break up  body copy with bullets, or short sentences.
  3. Targeting: If attempting to reach a specific reporter — after having contacted that reporter in advance  — write in the subject line: “Exclusive for (name of reporter).” Be sure to follow up with the reporter; cc the reporter’s assignment desk editor.
  4. One page: Do not clog cyberspace by writing multiple page releases. If the reporter wants more information, he/she will tell you. Be concise. Keep it to one page only.
  5. Placement on editorial calendars: Editorial calendars are always looking for information. Some publications provide an electronic portal. Use it!
  6. Update your data base: Reporters and editors move around from publication to publication. Update your data base by researching the publication’s masthead.
  7. Set realistic goals: Not all your products/events will reach their destination. It’s a numbers game. It behooves you to break things down to find the many uses/destinations for your press releases. Conduct a creative brainstorming session before sending your release out into the world. How can you can tell your story so many disparate audiences might respond to it? What angles haven’t you considered?

Maximize your time and be respectful to editors/reporters who receive scads of releases daily.  Get the job done efficiently. Lastly: develop editorial strategies to make the process of writing/distributing more engaging for those sitting on both sides of the desk.

**

For an evaluation of your editorial project, contact Robert Israel at risrael_97@yahoo.com. 

“From Both Sides of the Desk” is a series on how to improve communications, marketing, public relations, and publishing from the point of view of an editor, who sits on one side of the desk, and those pitching ideas/stories/concerns, who sits on the other side of the desk.