Jun 20, 2011

Here And Not

This being both Midsummer as well as World Refugee Day, considering concepts of new and old - and how they relate to the passage of time - seems particularly apt. I've been considering these ideas a lot since moving to New York, especially how they relate to one's physical presence (and simultaneous perceived social absence) in a large urban setting. It's easy to get lost in the crowd in a big city; it's even easier to fit entirely, utterly alone amidst the never-ending seas of people.

As a teenager, one of my very-favorite songs was 'Lonely Town', specifically Frank Sinatra's mournful, majestically sad recording from 1957. It so inspired me, in fact, that I wrote an entire story around it, one that later transformed into a screenplay for my university film writing class. Filled with youthful romanticism, it nonetheless reflected my wide-eyed fascination of the mysterious divide between the busy, buzzing world of urban life, and the weird, disorienting position of being completely alone in that environment.

A recent concert I attended beautifully captured this dynamic. The Aventa Ensemble's concert, appropriately called Voluptuous Panic, saw four American premieres, and took place at Scandinavia House, a gorgeously designed building with predictably lovely decor and an intimate performance space, the Victor Borge Hall. The concert captured the absence/presence dialectic I've been experiencing lately, and writing about madly in my beloved moleskine journal. Something about the mix of cacophony and stillness tapped into the heart of this mystery. Do Nordic composers have a better grasp of emptiness because of the insufferably long winters their respective countries bear? Is there a deeper connection to ideas around nothingness and absence, and their clash with populated areas, because much of Scandinavia is so dark and cold for several months at a time? Per Norgard's ...gennem torne... (...through thorns...) was haunting and morose, but gained some sprightly accompaniment from the impressive harp work of Maria Boelskov Sorenson.Canadian Paul Frehner's work, which titled the concert, was playful and boisterous, while the final work, Poul Ruders' Kaf Kapriccio, was based on the work of Franz Kafka's The Trial, and was suitably haunting, with tons of percussive elements like bells and drums and whistles.

The concert forced a series of questions as to what emotions music, and indeed, art, are meant to evoke: a simple escape from the everyday? An acknowledgement of darkness? An embrace of the void? What is art, if it doesn't force us into the traffic jams of going to and from that inner void, amidst the honking horns of every day life? The Aventa Ensemble, small yet mighty, captured the confusing, awesomely overwhelming contradiction of alone-ness amidst busy-ness, forcing me to look at not only my situation, but that of many people in a new way. Starting out isn't easy; sticking with the journey is harder, especially when it feels like "the day that never ends."

As Gabriel Byrne remarked in his chat with Edna O'Brien, there comes a point where you won't be at home in either place - back where you came from, or in your new place of residence -and, either way, you're going to be alone in some sense, whether it be mentally, spiritually, creatively, intellectually, physically, or all of the above. What to do? Maybe Jenny Holzer was right: contradiction is balance. Maybe I should've gone to the Abrons Art Center this weekend to get tips from Phillipe Petit on that one. As it is, I think I'll keep trying to see as much cultural stuff as I can, walking as much as I can, and enjoying the glorious heat -- solo, curious, with water bottle and journal in tow.

Jun 14, 2011

Turn On The Dark

A documentary aired on television earlier tonight about the legendary Chrysler Building here in New York. It brought to mind the incredible sets of Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark. Apparently the famous landmark features prominently in the musical's scenic design, by George Tsypin.

The troubled (and hopefully now, not-so-troubled) production opened tonight at the Foxwoods Theater. I've been following the show's developments for a while, and was one of its biggest boosters, until actor Christopher Tierney suffered a serious injury last December. Then I just got worried. Then frustrated. Then angry. I followed, with some horror, the drama involving director / co-creator Julie Taymor being forced out by the show's producers, in March. Things seemed very ugly and uncertain for a while, and it's something of a miracle the show is finally opening tonight. I'm happy for everyone, though until I see it, I'm going to withhold judgment, and good or bad ideas. Still, I remain very curious.

Lastnight I somewhat quenched that curiosity, and joined a few hundred curious other folk to hear two of Spider Man's producers, who are also its composers (and, oh yeah, mega-mondo big-ass rock stars), spoke in a public forum about the show, its problems, its challenges and its potential. The 92nd Street Y buzzed with energy as the 8pm start time came and went. The intimate auditorium brimmed with either super-excited super-U2-ers, or Broadway fans curious about what the Irish pair might have to say as newcomers to the Great White Way. Author Salman Rushdie was also present, along with a smattering of New York intellgentsia and longtime Y supporters, who sat in thoughtful silence, even as a small but annoying smattering of gushing female mondo-fans over-clapped and giggled at every little rock star face. (Note to self: next time there's an empty seat beside Mr. Rushdie, take it.)

Interviewer Jordan Roth, President of Jujamcyn Theaters (the company behind shows like the award-winning The Book Of Mormon and Jersey Boys) and host of Broadway Talks at 92nd Street Y, asked the two about the attraction of the live stage. Edge rightly pointed out that "(U2) found its feet on a live stage", while Bono noted that "there's a thing happening in culture at the moment, where the live arts seem more important than the recording." He continued:
It’s that inexplicable thing when you get a great performer and great material, and it can only happen in a live context. We were intrigued by it, and we’d seen some great shows like Les Miz and some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows. We saw the chance to do something where we could take advantage of what we were playing around with in rock ‘n roll, and if it was the right project, it might be something we’d want to do.
I pondered this as I sat through the nearly-90 minute Q&A session, which was equal parts frustration (far too much uncritical fan worship) and fascination (body language indicating extreme nervousness for at least one of the composers), peppered with plenty of charm, sarcasm, and humor. The interview was a mix of casual and formal, focusing on U2's creative output, and its connection with the experience of writing and producing on Broadway. Inane questions about "who do you think the next Gandhi will be?" aside (a fan question submitted earlier), it was, for the most part, an interesting mix of honesty, humor, and humility, offering a rare insight into the harried journey of composition and creativity from two very, very famous men.

Walking out of the Y at the talk's end, I reflected on the power of live arts, and of theater especially. Sunday night saw my Twitter stream fill with people's reactions and observations on the Tony Awards, which were unfolding in real-time. People were virtual fist-pumping, guffawing, loudly declaiming -it was a drama in and of itself -as they found a community of like-minded, live-loving souls whose whole existence seemed focused on the sheer pleasure of watching live people do rather ordinary things extraordinarily well. In the wired up world of the 21st century, there's something awfully reassuring and simply good about going to the theater; there's a certain kind of bond created, however unspoken, between audience and cast and crew -it's a symbiotic relationship involving trust, tech, timbre, and sometimes even tap-dancing. MP3s, iPads, and fancy mobiles with a millions apps can't compete -and shouldn't. To see this kind of passion replicated on Twitter for the Tonys was an interesting experience; it's the same phenomenon as during the Oscars, or any other awards show, or any other big event, for that matter. There's a community -but it isn't the same as live theater. Being part of a group of living, breathing, sweating human beings in the dark, watching other living, breathing, sweating human beings lit up and performing before you is a uniquely delicious experience, one that speaks to our common humanity and desire for shared, live experience.

Saturday night I was able to finally able to partake in this shared experience. I attended my first piece of theater since moving to New York, which felt like somewhat of a momentous occasion, even if I went in with mixed feelings about Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia. I completely overlooked that awkwardness in favour of the opportunity to see -no, experience -real live people onstage, playing. Playing roles, and beautifully, simply, playing. (As it turns out, David Leveaux's production was so excellent, I'm now a confirmed Arcadia fan.) This is something I think the composers of Spider Man inherently understand; they have, for wont of a better word, been playing, literally and figuratively, onstage now for thirty-plus years. Transferring that energetic faith and exuberant zeitgeist for live performance into a real, concrete thing that serves the difficult, choosy twins of narrative and character is always an uphill struggle, especially if you're used to composing within the fiercely competitive, pressure-cooker world of Broadway.

Lastnight, Bono admitted that the show still has "10%" left to improve on, and won't close that gap for at least another two months. "In the end, The Edge and I have got good manners, we're fun... but we are motherf***ckers," he noted. There was steel in the singer's husky voice, a characteristically Dublin-esque stare-down in his no-nonsense expression, devoid of usual charm, but with a bald, toothsome authenticity that made the comment -and its delivery -deeply affecting and entirely believable. That simple, blunt acknowledgement captured the sexy, succulent siren's call of play and creativity, and her fraught relationship with the ugly, gargoyle-like nose-to-the-grindstone practicality that could only (and must only) be Lady Siren's lifelong mate. What results is frequently personal, but when you're in the performing arts, it winds up being writ large, up for debate, criticism, hounding, and eternal judgment. Such is the fate of such a union, of such a scary, scintillating, and in many ways, artistically necessary undertaking. A near-alchemical mix of faith and hard work sometimes open doors to new worlds -and sometimes not.

In the end, the mantra is simple: Work hard. Play hard. Live hard. That is theater's call to all of us, however we may choose to weave our webs.

Photo credits:

Spider Man: Turn The Dark Off Photo © Jacob Cohl.
Bono / The Edge set Photo © Richard Perry / The New York Times.
92nd Street Y stage photo from my Flickr photostream.

Jun 9, 2011

Nowhere Is The Place To Be

The concept of the void -emptiness, nothingness, ground cleared away entirely -made an interesting return in my life this week.

Philosopher Richard Kearney mentioned it last week during his chat at the Rubin Museum Of Art; together with philosopher Joseph Prabhu, he parsed the connections between Catholicism and Buddhism, bringing in his own experiences about being at a holy cave in India (one central to Hinduism), and confronting the inevitable "void within." There was nothing, he said, that could've prepared him for being in such a dark, dreary place so entirely devoid of human contact and life. Seeing as he was on a pilgrimage, he'd planned to stay for two weeks, and had made the proper arrangements with local monks and authorities. As it was, he lasted three hours.

It's scary to confront this aspect of ourselves, where the external concerns both overwhelm and fall away, and ther'es nothing familiar or comforting to cling to anymore. Kearney brought up the pertinent example of Jesus calling out on the cross, "Father, why have you forsaken me?", drawing attention to the its perfect distillation of the concept of 'void', and what it means to confront that in order to move past it, and into a more meaningful existence. Experiencing this intense, intensely frightening, vast sense of inner emptiness and abandonment is, Kearney noted, a regular part of human experience; it doesn't happen just once, and it shouldn't. "Every day I die again and again and reborn..." Indeed.

This concept manifest into a hard reality after I left the talk, as news came about a potential job having fallen through. Encouragements aside (and I do thank every one of you who've sent them), it was, and remains hugely, painfully disappointing. Simply put, I don't know how I'm going to stay in the Big Apple without paid work. That's a hard reality, and a scary one to confront. Talk about staring into the void.

It's true that the experience of making a new home for myself in New York City has provided several opportunities to stare into -indeed, fully steep in -my very own gaping, airless void, and to examine the relationships between spiritual, creative, and practical aspects of my life, integrating the muck of the past with the even muckier-muck of the present, and the absolutely blank, white-on-white question mark of the future. After Wednesday night, it feels like I'm embarking on a different kind of pilgrimage - searching for meaning, yes, earning a viable living, yes -but balancing that with all the colorful inspiration gained from writing in Soho, from meeting people like Edna O'Brien, from seeing the beautiful couples doing tango Union Square Sunday afternoons, from making inspiring new friends in old places, from small showings of kindness and the incredible vibrancy of living in a city where life can change in an instant.

I'll definitely be returning to the Rubin for more thought-provoking talks, to see their upcoming exhibit about pilgrimage, to be illuminated by the kinds of ideas Kearney and Prabhu exchanged, and to sit and quietly examine the place where the void stops and life begins. Am I on the right track? Only time will tell - but I suppose it's all part of the journey of making a life in the Big Apple.


Jun 5, 2011

Lucky Charm

My writing has changed, and I blame (thank?) McNally Jackson. Without actor Gabriel Byrne liking the bookstore so much, I would've never had the chance to meet and chat with one of my literary heroes -and my writing wouldn't be experiencing the painful if necessary (and deeply overdue) growing pains it is now.

Over the course of the last six days, my moleskine journal has rapidly filled with stories, characters, and ideas. It's becoming more than a collection of random, disjointed thoughts. I have a few pages where I quickly jot down observations: shrieking children, over-friendly pets, that teenage girl with the long, dirty hair flirting with her pie-eyed boyfriend. I see so many things in one day that it's impossible to remember them all, but since last Monday night, I'm making a concerted effort. And I try to take the time now to sit in Union Square or Bryant Park or Central Park, or in front of the library, or any other number of gorgeous New York spots and just sit, breathe, look around, and ... write.

In this attempt to integrate personal and profound, the observed and the other, I can't help but think back to the incredible, inspiring things that flew from the lips of author Edna O'Brien. The Irish author was interviewed about her new collection of short stories by Byrne (a good friend and also Ireland's Cultural Ambassador) at McNally Jackson as part of an Imagine Ireland initiative. The event was hastily organized; to quote the store's twitter stream, "If Gabriel Byrne calls up and says, "Hey, I'd like to do an event with my friend Edna O'Brien in approximately zero days?" You just say yes."

It's hard for me to verbalize the effect O'Brien's work has had on me the last few years, particularly her latest work, a collection of short, powerfully moving stories. Her use of langauge is deeply poetic and loudly, proudly recalls some of the best in Irish writing, namely James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, but with the distinctly feminine voice and brisk narrative quality of Clare Boylan. O'Brien is in a class by herself, however. Born in County Clare in 1930, she had, like many of the time, a convent education and, in her conversation with Byrne, spoke dramatically of the limitations and restrictions placed on her and fellow students. There's a refreshing honesty to both her work and to seeing her read and speak in person. O'Brien is a very theatrical person, and, even in conversation, carefully chooses her words, drawing out vowels and making dramatic pauses, as if she's delivering the best damn monologue you've ever experienced.

With her thick hair, gorgeously pale, smooth skin and an unmistakable twinkle in her eyes, O'Brien is positively magnetic, and it makes reading her work later all the more rich and consuming. Every time I've picked up Saints And Sinners (her latest work, published by Back Bay Books) since last Monday, I've heard her lilting voice, those dramatic pauses, the quavering bits, the quiet bits, the queenly bearing, the Sheela-na-Gig, Lillie Langtry and Danu, combined, condensed, conspiring and co-habitating, all of them singing through every syllable, in her infinitely smart, sexy, strong voice. O'Brien's work is epic, mythical, and vital, but it's also deeply personal, and, as the Guardian rightly observes, "loss is inextricable from love, and from living – and that what saves us, if anything does, is the telling of that truth."

Telling the truth isn't always easy - especially when it's sitting there in front of us. Some truths are easier to swallow than others - and once we discover them, it's up to us how we choose to live with their loud mewlings, awkward quietude, and late-night bawling. Do we pretend they're not there? Or face that truth square-on? On Monday night, Byrne confessed to her that, back when he was growing up in Ireland, "I read your work to find myself." The author seemed stunned, caught off guard by such an admission, and responded, carefully and wide-eyed, "You mean to find an identity? a larger sort of identity?" Byrne re-phrased things so as not to put her on the spot, but we all knew what he meant, as he looked at his friend with a mix of awe, admiration, and gratitude.

I read her work to try to find myself too - and lately I've been adding to that portrait through vigorous, enthusiastic bouts of writing. Where to go with this unfolding narrative, and what to do once I get there -if I get there -remain mysteries, but perhaps that's how it should be. Honesty as salvation feels, to me, like a good place to start.

Thank you McNally Jackson, and thank you, Edna. The moleskine is calling.

Bottom photo courtesy of Rose Hartman.

All other photos are on my Flickr photostream.