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.

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

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From Both Sides of the Desk: Pesky Press Releases

February 8, 2019
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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.

From Both Sides of the Desk: Feed the Beat

January 30, 2019
Newspaper reporter at typewriter

A beat reporter on deadline, circa 1940.

By Robert Israel

A few years ago, on assignment to cover the Film Festival in a hotel in downtown Toronto, I stood alongside fifty reporters and camera crew members waiting for film celebrities to offer pithy insights into their films. The game plan: each actor/actress would get a few moments to introduce the films, and then answer questions from the scribblers. More time was allotted for them to smile for the shutterbugs.

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal entered. He was starring in Nightcrawler as a lone wolf determined to succeed by any means, legal or illegal. A reporter from an Ottawa newspaper asked what compelled him to work with writer/director Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy). Gyllenhaal cast the reporter a glazed look and replied: “Dan wrote a very extraordinary character on the page.” The reporter did not press for additional details; no other reporters took the bait; the event’s producers hustled the next celebrity to the stage.

The next morning, I perused the papers lying about in the press room. One paper ran a photo of Gyllenhaal, one column (similar to the one below), with a cut line identifying him, no quote. The Ottawa paper, Globe and Mail, ran his quote, reprinted verbatim.

 

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Jake Gyllenhaal

The incident reminded me of the late Russell Baker’s New York Times description of beat reporters serving as “nothing more than a megaphone for the convenience of frauds.”

To be fair, the reporter is only as good as the information he or she is fed (or is voracious enough to investigate). Since the aforementioned event was essentially a grin and grab, there wasn’t much substance to begin with. The reporter could have pressed for more; if he was keen on the story, he might have arranged a private chat with the actor, (the producers would be glad to have scheduled that). He chose not to. There may have been many more pressing meetings he had to cover.

As a public relations practitioner, you want beat reporters to bite. In fact, you want them to enjoy a full meal and then to shout into their megaphones about your client, all the better to attract and to inform readers (or customers) to your product.

If this is your goal, feed the beat with substance, not claptrap.

Here are a few insights into how to achieve that:

  1. If you must hold a press conference, make it a worthwhile event. Don’t rush it — let the “talent” have ample opportunity to address questions with engaging answers. Work with them beforehand. Print out responses to anticipated questions. Provide them with a script. (One assumes Jake Gyllenhaal in the aforementioned press conference could have been scripted, since he memorizes scripts as part of his profession).
  2. Build a strategy. Package your assignment with an eye toward achieving immediate results. Go the extra mile: envisage what follow-up stories might look like. Pitch these story ideas in advance to editors.
  3. Prepare background sheets. Summarize, in easily digestible paragraphs, using bullet points. Offer additional resources.
  4. For those publications without photographers, have computerized visuals available for downloading. Prepare B-rolls and include these on DVD discs within the press package.

For the record, in Toronto some of the film companies and the public relations professionals they contracted with followed these suggestions and achieved press saturation. But many did not, citing budgetary constraints. That said, the suggestions I’ve included above can be launched cost-effectively. It’s not really a question of breaking the bank here. It’s more about doing one’s job by anticipating the needs of the audiences you want to reach and setting into motion what you must have in your arsenal to achieve those results.

**

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Both Sides of the Desk: Creating an Editorial Process without Drudgery

January 28, 2019
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Creating an editorial process incorporates the best aspects of an assembly line minus the drudgery.

By Robert Israel

I grew up in an industrial neighborhood where three shifts of workers reported to work every day; from our third floor windows, I heard the constant clamor of machinery as these workers in the factory across the street processed spools of coiled wire. Nearby, members of my family punched in at a jewelry factory as “carders”: seated at an assembly line, they’d attach cosmetic baubles onto cardboard backings. My first job as a teenager was at a warehouse unloading automobile supplies from trucks: I’d place crates on a conveyor belt, and, at the top of the loading area, unload them onto dollies, then stack the boxes of spark plugs, mufflers, or whatever onto wooden pallets, nine hours a day, six days a week.

If it sounds like drudgery, it was: there was no time for interacting with fellow workers (except for one half hour at lunch), and we had no stake in the processes we devoted our time to.

Some of the aspects of drudgery existed when I worked as a line editor at a newspaper some years ago. I was asked to edit a certain number of stories for a specific section of the paper, adhering to strict deadlines. But there were marked differences: I was encouraged to interact with reporters filing the stories, to talk with other editors working alongside me, I attended story and photo meetings,  and, at quitting time, had the opportunity to look upon the product in layout form before it went to press. I came to see that the assembly line approach, once modified and humanized, could work effectively.

While line editing doesn’t completely eliminate unavoidable aspects of monotony found within any editorial process, giving workers a stake in that process makes the work more meaningful.

As an editorial consultant to non-profit and profit-oriented businesses or organizations, I ask at the onset: “What would you like your editorial process to look like?”

A common answer I hear is this: “We want to stop scrambling every time we need to publish something.”

Here are a few suggestions to making an editorial process more engaging:

  1. Many hands, a singular purpose. Assign specific tasks to employees throughout the organization. This is essentially creating an assembly line of workers who co-invest in a goal: they pledge to work together to put out an editorial product.
  2. Set deadlines. These deadlines are broken down by tasks — graphics, content, layout — with a facilitator managing the workflow.
  3. Check in, check off. Encourage communication throughout at follow-up team meetings when members check in and report their progress. Check off the tasks on a master sheet when each has been completed. Make sure everyone is on board throughout.
  4. Celebrate success. When the job is complete, celebrate working together with a team meeting, refreshments, congratulations all around. Take a step back: what lessons were learned? Could the process have gone smoother, and if so, how? Keep record of input, send progress reports, and let the team know when the next deadline is approaching.

Taken as a whole, these steps create a sense of excitement around any publishing project. It is a given that all members of the team will have other jobs to do while engaged in the publishing project (multitasking), and any project should not be assigned that creates a sense of yet another task added on, a burden, if you will. This can be avoided by engaging the team throughout, limiting their assignments to manageable (and deliverable) tasks, and by making the work not seem like “add on,” but a “value add.” All that are involved, when seeing that this enterprise is of value to themselves and to others, will want to invest in it and to share in feelings of pride that result from a team-oriented job well done.

**

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Oliver: An Appreciation

January 19, 2019
The late poet Mary Oliver. Photo: Wiki Commons

By Robert Israel

I’ve been a seasonal visitor to Provincetown from my teenage years onward; each summer I’d glimpse reclusive resident Mary Oliver, the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who died this week from lymphoma at age 83.

She turned me down for a formal interview when I approached her after a public reading at the town library. But if I sighted her going in or out of the shops on Commercial Street, the honky-tonk main artery that hugs Provincetown harbor, we’d chat amiably. The last time we met was a few summers ago, in front of Spank the Monkey, a tawdry gift shop. The owners had lit a bunch of sage on the sidewalk; the pile was coughing up smoky fumes that smelled like cannabis. She found this amusing, especially when tourists leaned over to inhale the smoke in hopes of getting high. We chatted while she stood astride her beat up Schwinn bike. She puffed on a cigarette. Her mop of grey hair was askew. Her teeth were yellowed from nicotine. Her faded blue sweatshirt matched her eyes.

I wasn’t the only reporter she rebuffed. She said no to the New York Times, forcing the reporter to prowl around the town and its national seashore to find the sites of Oliver’s poems that faithfully describe the flora and fauna of the Outer Cape.

She told Maria Shriver, in a rare interview in O: Oprah Magazine, that it wasn’t because she was reclusive; she found press interviews distracting:

“I didn’t know I was a recluse. I mean, I know many people in Provincetown — fishermen, Portuguese people, young people,“ she told Shriver. “If the plumber says, ‘How’s your work goin’?’ I’m very easy with that. But if somebody I don’t know comes to town and calls me up and says, ‘I love your work. I’m here for three days, could I take you to lunch?’ — well, that is something I can’t do. It’s hard to meet a stranger—you give of yourself—and if I did that, I’d want to do it well. I’d have to leave my desk, or the woods, and I don’t want to.”

Oliver claimed to have been influenced by American poets Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe; she wrote essays about each of them in one of her last books, Upstream: Selected Essays. But the writings of American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson were her greatest inspiration, principally because he preached that we must live the kind of awakened lives that embrace a “moral purpose”:

“The one thing he is adamant about,” Oliver wrote in “Emerson: An Introduction,” “is that we should look — we must look — for that is the liquor of life, the brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow.”

It is this thread — of living an awakened life with what American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “an open eye and an open heart” — one finds woven throughout Oliver’s poems.

In the last lines of one of my favorite poems, “Mornings at Blackwater,” Oliver drinks from one of the small kettle ponds near the bicycle path leading to Race Point beach. She writes:

“What I want to say is/that the past is the past,/and the present is what your life is, / and you are capable/ of choosing what they will be/darling citizen./So come to the pond/ or the river of your imagination,/ or the harbor of your longing,/ and put your lips to the world. /And live your life.” — “Mornings at Blackwater,” from Red Bird (Beacon Press, Boston).

Mary Oliver’s poetic vision reaches back to the American transcendentalists: it encourages us, through an attentive experience of our now threatened natural world, to find a moral compass.

**

A previous version of this article was published in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on Jan. 19, 2019.

From Both Sides of the Desk: Pitching — For Accuracy & Speed

January 17, 2019
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Aroldis Chapman, the “Cuban Missile.”

By Robert Israel

Aroldis Chapman, dubbed the “Cuban Missile,” is the world’s fastest pitcher. According to the record books, he pitched a fastball at 105.1 miles per hour; 0.412 seconds after it left his hand, it reached the batter.

Some years ago, I worked in a public relations shop helmed by a man who could have been the Cuban Missile’s double. He worked at a feverish pace. He expected his employees to do the same. He was envied – even feared – around the city. He barked,  sometimes he growled. He got lots done – quickly. He expected his stable of public relations practitioners (I called our team Whirling Dervishes) to jump at his command.

We worked long hours. We boasted an impressive roster of successes. How accurately we got things done is another matter. Several of my colleagues cut corners; other staff members called in favors.

I often wondered, what might happen if, as public relations professionals, we combined speed with accuracy. Could we accomplish our goals?

I believe p.r. professional can achieve these goals if they follow these guidelines:

  1. Define pitches. Once the theme of the media campaign is decided and broken down to the sum of its parts, sketch out scenarios. By this I mean write down talking points as to why the pitch matters. Brainstorm with your colleagues to articulate the urgencies. I call this building an arsenal.
  2. Prepare a list of targets: Using a template, build a tracking sheet (this will come in handy since you will need to be accountable to your client and to your employer). On this list, include press contacts in television, web, national/international publications/media, billboards, radio, local newspaper/print publications/media. Include a blank space next to the entry to record results. If it’s a large campaign, consider seeking the assistance of media firms. (Remember, these firms come with a hefty price tag, so be sure to review their record of hits before signing them on.) Where do you want the campaign to go? How much do you want to spend? This applies to both for-profit and non-profit companies. Many non-profits rely on free placements, or low cost ones. Freebies are possible, but be sure to research these opportunities and to find media outlets that welcome public service announcements. Another way of approaching placement is to find people associated with your company who may live in towns or cities you are hoping to impact. I call these “hometowners.” You can write up profiles of how they are associated with your project, for example, and then embark on pitching the stories local publications who run these profiles free of charge because these individuals are neighbors. Always ask yourself: what does success look like? And remember: don’t be trigger happy. It’s not: ready, shoot, aim. Rather, it’s: ready, aim, shoot.
  3. Know the Players. My former employer insisted we get to know the beat reporters and section editors at local and national publications. Due to the changing nature of the playing field,  consulting media directories is often futile: reporters and editors hop from publication to publication like jackrabbits. Keep track of their comings and goings by monitoring the mastheads of publications/media outlets you are targeting. Call the media outlet and ask who has been assigned to a particular beat. Reporters and editors use Muck Rack. (My profile is here: https://muckrack.com/robert-israel-1) Journalists using Muck Rack often post stories they are working on. Keep an accurate record of personnel changes. When possible, attend functions to meet the editors, reporters, publishers. Chat them up: How can your project make the cut?
  4. Keep the Pitches Coming: Every once and awhile, even the Cuban Missile misses a pitch and a batter sends the baseball he has hurled over the Green Monster. You will strike out. Don’t sit around licking your wounds: draw from the arsenal you created in step 1. Be prepared to bounce back quickly. If you’ve broken down the pitches accurately you’ll be ready to get back in the game.
  5. Ready, Aim, Shoot. Whenever possible, have finished copy ready to send if the media outlet gives you the green light. Keep these “in the tank,” and ensure they are free of grammatical and spelling errors. Proofread — and copy edit — your work. When you reach the end the call with the media, close with: “Thanks! When can I follow up?”

**

Robert Israel’s column is gleaned from his experiences working on both sides of the desk, as a daily/weekly newspaper reporter/editor, and as a public relations practitioner: pitching stories and listening to stories being pitched. Contact: risrael_97@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carol Channing: An Appreciation

January 15, 2019

 

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Carol Channing, 1921-2019

By Robert Israel

Carol Channing, who died this week at the age of 97, had a larger-than-life presence in person and on stage. She drew accolades for her performance as the original Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, and over a long career, enjoyed success as a comic actress and singer. Sadly, with her passing, a chapter of the American theater draws to a close.

Channing was a hot commodity when Broadway musicals were events you talked about excitedly to your friends. Shows had the power to draw audiences in, capitalizing on the previous era when “theatricals,” or vaudeville shows, drew the masses to the Gaiety and Metropolitan theaters in Boston, or to the Loew’s State or the R.K.O Albee in Providence. Theatricals were strung together — they didn’t really have a “book” — and they featured salacious jokes and a chorus line of scantily clad women (the cheekier the better).

These often bawdy productions were popular when my parents were coming of age in the 1940s, pre- and post-World War II. By the time I came of age in the late 1960s, they were already on the wane. I was dragged to a few of them as a youngster. I remember sitting on plush seats while the orchestras warmed up. Heavy velour curtains were raised. The ticky-tacky sets looked like they had been hastily assembled moments before.

Channing, whose onstage talents paid homage to those early vaudevillian roots, won  Academy Awards and Tony Awards for her work. Yes, she earned a degree in theater at Bennington College, but she often stated that her theatrical education came from learning routines from vaudevillians that pre-dated her success in Hello, Dolly! She was witty, urbane, and, I discovered, not shy about using salty language to make a point.

My encounter with Channing took place in 1985 when I was a young reporter, writing reviews for the now defunct Providence Phoenix. I was invited to attend a press lunch in Boston. I took the bus to Park Square, arriving late. I introduced myself and apologized to the august gathering (including the late Elliot Norton and other critics), stammering that I had gotten lost en route. No one cared or believed me. Channing looked up from her Caesar salad, and with a gaze of incredulity, said in flawless Yiddish: “Az di bubbe volt gehatn beysim, zi b’geven mayn zeyde.” It was directed to me. Embarrassed, I knew what the expression meant, having heard it used by my grandparents. Translated it means: “If my grandmother had testicles. she’d be my grandfather.”

Kevin Kelly, the late theater critic for the Boston Globe, who was seated beside Channing at the luncheon, asked her what the Yiddish expression meant. He wrote, in his Sunday piece, that instead of telling him the meaning, she cracked a joke he couldn’t reprint in a family newspaper. “I could hear George Jessel laugh all the way from Los Angeles,” Kelly wrote.

I searched but could not find a video clip of the production of Jerry’s Girls — a hodgepodge musical she performed in later that night at the Shubert — that captured the essence of her comic genius.

I will attempt to recreate it here. In one number titled, “Take It All Off,” four fan dancers appeared on stage raising and lowering their feather boas to reveal glimpses of their décolletage. The gist of their high pitched wailing was that the “boys in the balcony” insisted they disrobe. These “boys”, rather boisterously, were yelling that the girls “take it all off,” insisting they perform in the buff, a bubble dance sans bubble. Before exiting, they introduced “the star of the show,” Miss Peaches (Channing). She pushed past the dancers, disheveled. Dressed in high laced combat boots, an oversized union suit, with a Harpo Marx fright wig sitting lopsided on her noggin, she pivoted, all the better to display her wares (she stood six feet tall) to all corners of the audience. Even before she croaked one note, simply by standing there, the house was hers. She owned the place. A man seated beside me wiped tears from his cheeks. The audience erupted in applause. The orchestra picked up the tune. Everyone was laughing or catcalling, or both.

“Every night at the Palace Theater, as the sound of the orchestra starts to swell,” Channing sang out in her inimitable off key whine, “I walk out to begin my number and the boys in the balcony start to yell, ‘Put it back on, put it back on! Jeeze lady. Please lady. Put it back on!”

No other performer I  have seen before or since has commanded such sway over an audience.

Channing was outspoken on many subjects, especially on the subject of politics, earning her a spot on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Of all her many accomplishments, she said, this was one she truly cherished.

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From Both Sides of the Desk: Editorial Planning is a Key to Success

January 14, 2019

By Robert Israel

Afternoon meetings at the newspaper brought editors together around a table in a room they called the “fish tank”: it was surrounded on all sides by glass. We read our list of priorities and the editors listened and gave thumbs up or thumbs down. Once the meeting ended, I returned to my desk — editing wire stories, talking to correspondents, slotting stories.

Day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month: that’s the world of editorial work in the trenches. There was no long-range planning. If a special section was developed, we were often sent scrambling for content.

You can avoid last minute scrambles with editorial planning, an effective tool that yields success, time and again.

But first you must think of yourself as a publisher. No matter what business or enterprise you are involved in, if you publish material in print, or post it on the web, or author a newsletter: you are a publisher. As a publisher, you connect with readers, and by this I mean customers, investors, and potential clients. With an effective editorial plan, you can reach more of these readers than you may have imagined.

Keeping these and other constituents close and informed is essential. Do they know you? What can you do to help them to know you better?

While many businesses run a budget that is “zero to the bone,” as Emily Dickinson once wrote, earmarking funds for the planning of an editorial calendar is not a costly proposition. Ultimately, editorial planning saves money and time. Furthermore, it unites the communications/sale teams so they are better prepared, and it keeps information flowing, even if the alarm bells ring and you find yourself scrambling to fill a content void.

Some suggestions:

  1. Create a working calendar: A two-meeting process. Meeting 1: Bring all hands on deck with the goal of creating a working calendar for the next year. Be forward looking, not backward glancing. Define – and share that definition with the team – what success looks like. Provide examples. Give the team an assignment to review the examples and ask them to return for a second meeting with new ideas.
  2. Assign tasks: At the second meeting, assign a deadline to each task.
  3. Check in: Establish frequent check-in dates to ensure no task has gone unfinished.
  4. Leave room for surprises: Effective editorial planning leaves room for surprises i.e., new ideas that can be incorporated into the larger scheme.
  5. Lessons Learned: When the editorial calendar has been completed and implemented, when all the tasks have been realized, before planning the next editorial calendar, have one more meeting to take stock of successes and failures. Were the timelines/deadlines realistic? Could the team have worked more efficiently? If the end result was not as stellar as anticipated, make sure your tone is non-accusatory. The goal is to move from strength to strength, from success to ongoing successes.

Implementing editorial planning will get you there.

**

Next topic: Effective pitching.

Robert Israel’s column is gleaned from his experiences working on both sides of the desk, as a daily/weekly newspaper reporter/editor, and as a public relations practitioner: pitching stories and listening to stories being pitched. Contact: risrael_97@yahoo.com.

Essay: On Walls

January 9, 2019
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A view of the Berlin Wall by Patrick Piel, circa 1986.

By Robert Israel

On January 4, The Boston Globe published my letter to the editor, in which I compared the Berlin Wall – which I visited on a press trip to Germany some years ago — to the wall proposed by President Trump to be built along the southern border. My letter, written because I had discovered a chunk of Berlin Wall I purchased at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, said, in part:

“I’ve taken [my chunk of Berlin Wall] from storage to remind myself of when the Berlin Wall that separated neighbors and fellow Berliners for far too many years came tumbling down. It’s an appropriate item to ponder now that President Trump insists on building a similar wall along our southern border. If that wall is ever built, some day, like the Berlin Wall, it, too, will be torn down when we realize it should’ve never been built in the first place. My chunk of misshaped Berlin Wall concrete is stamped with an emblem, to prove its authenticity. I predict that when the Trump wall comes tumbling down, it will be branded with his insignia, the one that emblazons all his real estate holdings. A future chunk of official Trump southern wall concrete may then be seen as proof of his folly and ongoing misguided policies that are fracturing our nation.”

My published letter prompted several negative responses. One reader wrote to the paper that my letter was “the stupidest” the Globe had ever published. Another response, published on January 9th,  was authored by Bill Reilly from Lynn, Mass. He wrote:

“I think Israel needs to study history a little bit more. The Berlin Wall was built to prevent people in East Berlin from leaving the country. It was tantamount to a prison wall. People were shot trying to leave East Germany. It was not built to protect East Germany from an influx of migrants.”

Mr. Reilly is correct: the Berlin Wall was indeed initially built as a “prison wall,” to prevent an exodus of East Germans to the non-communist West Berlin. But what Mr. Reilly did not grasp from my letter is that the Berlin Wall also prevented West German citizens, who, in many cases were related to those trapped on the eastern side, from being united with them. The Berlin Wall was a barrier to liberty; it halted the free flow of communication between neighbors, families, and from all those living around the globe. Over the many years, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of rancor and divisiveness. I predict the Trump Wall — should it ever be erected — will achieve the same, tragic results.

There is a poignant video clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCRvarruS9g) available for viewing on YouTube, featuring a performance by the late puppeteer Burr Tilstrom, who in 1964, used his two bare hands and arms to depict  “visiting days,” when the Berlin Wall was opened briefly to accommodate family visits. Tilstrom used his left hand and arm to represent a West Berliner allowed to visit his family member, depicted by his right hand and arm, in East Berlin. His non-verbal performance, which lasted only a few minutes, captured what happens when a wall like the Berlin Wall is erected: it rips families, individuals, cities, and indeed nations, apart. Tilstrom ended his performance with his right hand clenched in a fist shown angrily pounding on the wall (portrayed by his left arm) that keeps him from living a free, united life with his family on the West Berlin side.

I received another letter from a reader of my letter in The Boston Globe, mailed to my home in Arlington. The author, Jay Mann, a resident of New Bedford, Mass., said he found my address in the White Pages. He identified himself as a Jehovah’s Witness. He wrote: “…the Bible prophecy (Pslam 22:27) indicates that under the rule of God’s Kingdom we will no longer have borders or walls separating people.”

In spite of the negative responses, I am appreciative of all the writers who took the time to respond to my published letter. I am quite certain I cannot relate to Mr. Mann’s belief in prophecy, and nor can I embrace Mr. Reilly’s opinion that walls only have one side and one purpose: to serve as a prison. Walls achieve that imprisonment goal, but they have two sides: they keep people in, and they keep other people out. They divide rather than unite.

There are other ways to protect borders, technologies that can be useful to process immigrants seeking asylum in our nation, border patrols to keep the peace, alternatives to be used while encouraging communication, not blocking it.

It is my fervent hope we explore those avenues before agreeing to fund and to erect yet another costly, painful barrier.

Best Boston Stage Productions for 2018

January 6, 2019
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Amanda Plummer

By Robert Israel

The Boston-area abounds with stage productions. There are so many productions, in fact, that my fellow reviewers at the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) cannot see them all throughout the year. And each season new shows are added and performed around the city — at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, at the legitimate houses downtown, at stages maintained by the area’s numerous colleges and universities, and at makeshift performance spaces in Cambridge, Charlestown, and Provincetown. The IRNE committee meets in February to cast our votes for the best local and touring productions in February; we post the IRNE winners online in April.

Here, in order of their impact, I’ve selected four shows that were some of the best I saw in 2018:

Talisman Roses, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Marsha Mason. Staged by the Collective NY, at the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, Provincetown, MA.

This previously unpublished 1937 script was found in a Texas university library by TWTFestival curator/impresario David Kaplan. Marsha Mason’s insightful direction used props minimally: the cast’s three actresses, including acclaimed film star Amanda Plummer, took us into the depths of an institutionalized woman’s life. The script explored how others close to her became ensnared in her troubled orbit.

The Humans, by Stephen Karam. Directed by Joe Mantello. At the Boch Center, Shubert Theatre, Boston, MA

Playwright Stephen Karam, whose Sons of the Prophet was staged in 2011 by the Huntington Theatre Company, returned to Boston this year with The Humans, a heartfelt drama. In it, we met the Blakes, a contemporary American family who are facing a number of challenging issues revolving around employment, debt, and health. The cast, helmed by veteran television actor Richard Thomas, skillfully dramatized the fragile family’s fight against decline.

Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston, MA.

Like Stephen Karam, playwright Guirgis focused on people in pursuit of their slice of the American dream. The production featured a strong cast: Tyrees Allen (as Pops), Octavio Chavez-Richmond (as Lulu), and Celeste Olivia (as Church Lady). The trio commanded the stage, generating  humor and pathos. This Pulitzer Prize-winning script chronicled the trials and tribulations of scrappy New York City characters engaged in a daily struggle for shelter, dignity, and survival.

WET: A DACAmented Journey, written and performed by Alex Alpharaoh. Presented by ArtsEmerson, Boston,MA.

In his one-act monologue, which reflects today’s headlines, actor/writer Alpharaoh recounts his battle to obtain citizenship, a difficult (and perilous) process faced by most Central Americans seeking asylum in a politically fractured United States. His superb performance dramatized the experience’s sorrow, bravery, heartache, and limited moments of triumph.

**

A version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston) on December 30, 2018.