Confronted By My Own Writing, Three Decades Later

January 30th, 2016 § 0 comments

DP logoI am not given to reveries about bygone days or a review of my life choices on my birthdays. The same holds true for New Year’s eve and day. But just in time for my birthday this year, I was forced to look back on a small portion of my past, thanks to an archiving project undertaken by my college newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania. I suspect that many other alumni of The Daily Pennsylvanian are having this experience right now. It just so happens that its debut timed out just prior to my birthday.

From roughly September 1981 to April of 1984, I wrote for The DP, after breaking through the cliquish barrier that didn’t afford me much opportunity during my freshman year. But once I began writing in earnest, I turned out some 70 pieces over three school years, a pretty good count considering my writing was limited almost entirely to 34th Street, a weekly magazine insert to the main paper where I was also arts editor for two semesters. Unlike the main newspaper, 34th Street of that era was focused on news and entertainment beyond the campus itself.

With my friend John Marshall (l.) at an annual DP dinner circa 1982

With my friend John Marshall (l.) at an annual DP dinner circa 1982

It’s worth noting that at the time I wrote for The DP, the internet was inconceivable and there was no prospect that my writing would last more than a couple of days, save for a few bound volumes that might gather dust in the paper’s archives. While I do have a stack of old papers stashed away in a drawer, I never anticipated that my thoughts on entertainment from ages 19 to 22 would ever be generally available to those who wished to seek them out.

Of course, dipping into the archive proved irresistible, and I quickly discovered pieces I remembered rather well, notably my first celebrity interview, with a not yet knighted Ian McKellen, which I had retyped and added to this website a few years ago. I found a number of film and theatre reviews, all written with the hauteur and certainty that one can perhaps only muster at that age. But as I browsed headlines, I was quickly reminded of some pieces, despite a distance of over 30 years, while others were so unfamiliar that I wondered if someone else had written them.

The most surprising pieces are the ones where, while my language may have been infelicitous and is now outmoded, with some unintentional sexism in evidence, it seems my perspective on the arts wasn’t all that different from what it is today. These are the ones from which I want to share a few bits and pieces.

In March 1982, I attempted to address both student performers and critics, tired of the endlessly repeated patterns of a review one day, followed by outraged letters from the subjects of those reviews a couple of days later. In “For Reviewers and Reviewees,” I counseled critics:

If you feel that there is something wrong with a show, say so, but don’t be nasty about it. The search for exciting prose should not extend to slandering the performers. They are, after all, fellow students. A negative observation about an actor is fine, but avoid excess, it does neither the performer’s nor your reputation any good.

Lights, sets, costumes, and, most importantly, direction are all critical elements of a show and involve great commitments by those responsible. These factors of production deserve much more than an offhand summation of “good” or “bad.”

To provide balance, I advised those involved in student theatre:

Remember that the reviewers also try to be as professional as possible. That means they must say what they feel, be it pleasant or uncomplimentary. Just as a director can choose to emphasize any facet of a script in production, a writer can focus on any element of a show that he deems worthy of mention.

Getting reviewed is an unavoidable part of performing (unless a producer decides not to let reviewers in). Right or wrong, intelligent or irresponsible, reviews are almost inextricably linked to the performing arts. Also, reviewers must speak with authority, since only they can justify the personal opinions that they write about. If a writer hates, for example, the score of West Side Story, he should say so, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Two days after he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for A Soldier’s Play, I had the opportunity to attend a small press gathering with Philadelphia resident Charles Fuller, held at Freedom Theatre, a company focused on work by African-American artists. I reported the event, in part, as follows:

Fuller says that at first he wasn’t sure everyone would like A Soldier’s Play, which is currently being staged by New York City’s Negro Ensemble Company. “We wanted to take a chance,” he says. “It begins to deal with some of the complexities of black life in this country.”

Fuller is only the second black playwright to win the prize. “It’s an important step for me as a playwright – I don’t know what effect it will have on theater as a whole.” As for Fuller’s own effect on theater, he wants to “talk about black people as human beings. We’ve been talked about as statistics for so long.”

Fuller says that his writing develops from his hopes for society. “It’s a severe racial pride. But it’s not racist.”

I presumed to opine about the state of Philadelphia theatre from a historical perspective, in the days before many of the vibrant companies that now occupy the city had begun. This was hubris, of course. But take note of my concern about ticket pricing.

Philadelphia theater ain’t what it used to be. Thank God.

After skyrocketing financial restraints severely depleted the number of pre-Broadway tryout productions here, Philadelphia in the 1970’s was left with but a few large Broadway-type houses and very little to put in them. Smaller companies tried in vain to bridge the gap, failing for a variety of economic and artistic reasons. And Andre Gregory’s Theatre of the Living Arts – the city’s only interesting theater of the 60’s – got too weird for patrons and fizzled out over a decade ago.

Pre-Broadway tours still come around every so often, with Anthony Quinn’s Zorba revival highlighting the past season and an Angela Lansbury Mame promised for the summer. Less discriminating theatrical patrons will probably be sated with the national tours that appear regularly with watered-down versions of Broadway smash hits, although paying 35 dollars for Andy Gibb in the otherwise wonderful Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat should be considered a criminal offense.

I had the opportunity to interview Spalding Gray, relatively early in his solo performing career, in conjunction with one of his monologues that few people have even heard of. It was performed at a venue called The Wilma Project, now known at The Wilma Theatre.

“I am a sort of actor-anthropologist, a mixture of story-teller and monologuist,” Gray says, summing up his unique performing style. He talks directly to the audience from memory, using no script. Unlike previous one-man shows. Gray portrays no one other than himself as he “re-remembers” his life experiences for audiences.

Gray will deliver his piece, In Search of the Monkey Girl, for a live audience the first lime this weekend. He has performed it four times into a tape recorder, in order to provide a text for a series of sideshow photographs shot by Randall Leverson which were printed in Aperture magazine. “It was strange,” Gray says. “He had worked for ten years and I only took ten days.”

In the course of his journey to the state fair, Gray was attracted to a trio of middle class preachers. “They had lost their drug rehabilitation center as a result of the Reagan cutbacks and were working in the sideshow in order to save up enough money to reopen it.” he says. In the meantime, Gray adds, “they were geeks, sucking on the heads of fifteen foot snakes.”

I am glad to find that I was concerned about the portrayal of women on screen at a young age (while completely misunderstanding a film’s genre), writing the following about 48 HRS, the Walter Hill movie that introduced Eddie Murphy to the big screen:

Compounding this inept rehash of the hard-boiled detective genre is the incredibly sexist treatment of women. The few females presented are either climbing into or out of bed, making 48 HRS the most callously anti-feminist film in years.

Even live theatre, or taped productions, something that is once again a current topic, caught my eye, and my thoughts today aren’t all that different than these from 1982:

First, in the case of NBC’s offerings, is it really necessary for T.V. to air the programs live? Granted, live productions were the rule in the fifties, but now editing allows for choosing the best of many takes. Finer quality could be attained from editing together several different performances of the same work. Nowadays live broadcasts are novelties masquerading as high art.

Second, judging by the cable tapings of stage shows, can true justice be done to a work that is primarily staged for one viewing perspective? The limitations imposed by stage architecture result in a radical lessening of camera angles, which have traditionally been used by T.V. and cinema to add to a production. One play shown on HBO included shots from the back of the theater, rendering the figures on the stage almost invisible. Stage shows should be directed again if they are to be adapted for the camera.

Third, what of realism: will a T.V. audience accept “theatricality’?…

…It is commendable that T.V. is attempting to bring theater to a mass audience, but it is a shame that the artistic qualities and capabilities of both media are being compromised in the process. While the public should strongly support the revival of television drama, perhaps theater is belter off where it belongs: on the stage.

I do remember my lengthy feature on the issue of book banning and censorship, which presaged some of my work at the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School on arts censorship. I spoke with figures I didn’t care for at the time (and still don’t), such as Phyllis Schlafly and a spokesman for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Frankly, I wish I’d spoken to more anti-censorship figures as I look back at the article, but my summing up wasn’t bad, though I deeply regret the absence of two asterisks at the time, or my use of a racial slur at all, when referring to Mark Twain’s character of Jim in Huckleberry Finn:

In Texas this past August, a couple who spend their time reviewing school books for “questionable” content voiced disapproval of a textbook that describes the medicinal qualities of the drug insulin. They said that the reference will lead students to believe that all drugs are sale and beneficial.

Earlier this year Studs Turkel visited a high school in Girard, Pennsylvania, to talk with students and teachers about the movement to remove Working from twelfth grade reading lists. His appearance convinced authorities to restore the book temporarily, but they are still seeking a means by which Working can be banned.

The above examples are not isolated incidents. The rapidly rising wave of book banning and censorship threatens to engulf the U.S.’s entire elementary and secondary education system. There are ten times as many books banned today as there were only a decade ago. Books are being withheld or purged from classrooms and school libraries according to the dictates of various parental and political interest groups…

…No matter how big the issue becomes, the controversy boils down to three issues; what rights the Constitution guarantees to students, what parents want their children to read, and what censorship means. Is it the removal of traditional values from books or the removal of books from libraries? And who will decide?

Finally, in a piece I had completely forgotten, I find that my work at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts was not something that emerged late in life, but had actually been on my mind a long time ago as well. It’s important to remember that at the time, “handicapped” was still emerging to replace “crippled”; “disabled” was not yet identified as the best term. There’s some hyperbole here, and outmoded and awkward expression, but the core of my thinking, I hope, rings true.

An actor’s greatest fear, short of death, is probably of being disfigured in some terribly obvious way. A facial scar, a missing limb, even something so simple as nodes on the vocal cords can send the finest actor into oblivion. But a handful of actors over the past several decades have proven that the handicapped are still superb performers who do not deserve to be shunned by an industry that has based itself on physical perfection…

…Currently, Adam Redfield is touring in the play Mass Appeal, despite an obvious case of neuralgia which has paralyzed the right side of his face. While the condition is temporary, it is to the producers’ credit that they have allowed Redfield to continue in the role. It also proves that the handicapped should be allowed to perform in “normal” roles, even if they do not quite fit the character description, it is sobering to remember that had Redfield had the neuralgia before his audition, he probably would have been quickly discarded.

Are we fully formed as people in college? Certainly not. But it seems that many of the same interests and issues that moved me to to write 30 years ago remain important to me now. I wonder if anything I said in the 80s, or today, will still hold up another 30 years on. But I’d like to still be writing, and I wonder what will be in my mind in 2046.


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