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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Story Pitching

Ben Hecht walked into a restaurant rest room and found Sam Goldwyn standing at an urinal. Ben stood at the next urinal and pitched Sam a story. Goldwyn had prostrate problems, so Ben had a long time to pitch. When Sam finally shook off, he told Ben he'd buy it for $ 125,000. Young screenwriters who try to catch Steven Spielberg at a restaurant's urinal should keep in mind though that Ben Hecht was Hollywood's number one scribe at his time. He could have sold any story anywhere. He probably made up this one, too. Anyway, it's a nice little a anecdote, isn't it.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Modern Man

"For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You-you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot."
Moses Herzog aka Saul Bellow

Thursday, July 29, 2010

No Substitute

"Doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things."
Stephen R. Covey

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Genius?

"Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede - not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people can't count above fourteen."
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chocolate For Musical Buffs

I've found the following article by Patrick Healy in last weekend's New York Times. It is clearly too long for a blog entry, but nevertheless… A small private theater playing musicals is an amazing endeavor anyway. Mr. Babani's Menier Chocolate Factory of London is an admirable achievement. Whoever's interested in musical theater should read this:

TREVOR NUNN had a money problem. The director of such lavish musicals as “Cats” and “Les MisĂ©rables,” he wanted a particular dress — somber but frisky — for the leading lady in his latest show here, this summer’s revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love.” But Mr. Nunn was now working at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a 160-seat theater known for its scaled-down productions — including, in the case of “Aspects,” not a single dressmaker. So Mr. Nunn found himself asking David Babani, the Chocolate Factory’s 32-year-old artistic director, for extra money for shopping. Mr. Babani agreed, and soon the perfect dress, in an elegant grape-purple, was snapped up. On sale, for £85 ($130).
“I wasn’t told how much the dress cost, and David was probably having conniptions somewhere over it,” Mr. Nunn said later. “I’ve never had to swallow hard before to ask for a dress, but budget cutoffs are well worth working at the Chocolate Factory.”
If Mr. Babani runs his shop down to the pence, he is certainly doing more with less at the Chocolate Factory, in a former confectionary in the Southwark section of London, a few blocks from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Unlike anything now in New York, the Chocolate Factory is the rare commercial theater operation that pumps out critically acclaimed hit shows on shoestring budgets, including this year’s Tony Award winner for best musical revival, “La Cage Aux Folles.” Its recent successes on Broadway has inspired Mr. Babani to envision a branch of the Chocolate Factory in New York someday.
Founded in 2004, the theater has quickly become a creative force in the West End here and increasingly on Broadway, where it has garnered 24 Tony nominations for just three of its revivals: “Sunday in the Park With George” (2008), “A Little Night Music,” which opened in 2009, and “La Cage.” As for London, of the 30 shows that the Chocolate Factory has produced, 10 have moved to much larger theaters, including the current hit revival of “Sweet Charity.”
Such transfers have been essential moneymakers for the Chocolate Factory, which has an annual operating budget of about £2 million ($3 million) and does not receive a government subsidy like two other major London producing companies, the National Theater and the Donmar Warehouse. To create those shows for such little money, the Chocolate Factory has minted a minimalist aesthetic — simple sets, basic costumes and lighting, actors often playing two or more roles — on budgets that are on par with major not-for-profit Off Broadway theaters. Plays cost about £80,000 ($120,000), and musicals between £300,000 and £500,000 (about $450,000 to $765,000). A typical Broadway musical costs $8 million to mount. All cast members, even stars, are paid the same company wage of £300 a week, or about $460. And the theater’s permanent staff includes only Mr. Babani and two other employees, a radically smaller operation than American theater companies.
Some of these economies have not only helped keep the theater solvent, but have also become a template for producers and directors in London and New York.
Stripped-down musicals are in vogue, from actors playing instruments onstage (making a large orchestra unnecessary) in the recent Broadway revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” to the relatively spare staging of musicals like “Hair” and “Next to Normal.” For Mr. Babani the goal of the Chocolate Factory, where theatergoers sit as close as three feet from the actors, is to remove the distractions of epic-size production numbers, which can consume money and rehearsal time, so the creators and cast can focus on realizing a show’s essence.
“We start by focusing on the story and making it actor-led, rather than scenery-led or orchestra-led,” said Mr. Babani, half-swallowed by the plush worn sofa in a nook just a few yards from the stage. “And then we survive by getting our work out of this building and into larger theaters where we can start making money.”
Some of the shows that do not go on to larger theaters have lacked a commercial patina, or positive reviews. The Chocolate Factory’s previous show, “Paradise Found,” directed by the Tony winners Harold Prince and Susan Stroman and starring Mandy Patinkin, was a box office success but took a drubbing from critics, and it closed in June without a transfer.
Mr. Babani pointed to “Paradise Found” as a production that, while promising in development and invested with huge talent, did not mesh with the Menier aesthetic. A transcontinental adventure story set in 1873, it was more epic than most Chocolate Factory shows, with ornate dresses as well as automated sets — the first ever used at the theater, he said. “If anything, the show was overdesigned for the space, with perhaps more scenery and furniture and costumes than the building could handle,” Mr. Babani said.
He accepted some of the blame. “With such a small staff and a lot on my plate, we probably weren’t clear enough, strict enough, or strong enough with Hal and Susan about what wasn’t working with the show in our theater,” Mr. Babani said.
Ms. Stroman (“The Producers”) said she did not believe the show was overdesigned but agreed that its scale was not pared down. Regardless, the Chocolate Factory proved ideal to try out the new musical, she said, because the confined space made it easier to see the weaknesses and strengths of the show. “I came away understanding that the marrying of the music and the story could be even more buoyant,” said Ms. Stroman, who plans to return to the drawing board with Mr. Prince to rework the show.
“The Chocolate Factory gave us the opportunity to discover what we have to work on without costing us millions of dollars,” she added.
Which is precisely Mr. Babani’s mission. An impish, rumpled character who attends to his clothing and hair far more casually than to his shows, Mr. Babani recalled falling in love with theater when he saw “Sweeney Todd” at the National Theater when he was 13. “It blew my mind that a show about grown-ups killing people could be funny and nasty and scary and thrilling,” said Mr. Babani, who described his family as middle class and saw most theater early on by buying discount tickets.
He began producing his own shows while in secondary school — his production of Ariel Dorfman’s drama “Death and the Maiden” at a local theater earned a £1,000 profit when he was 18 — and went on to work as a commercial producer until finding a handsome building, with exposed wood beams and cast-iron columns, sitting vacant a few blocks south of the Thames. It was built in 1870 to house a factory for Menier Chocolate, a Parisian company that was ultimately sold off during the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Babani said he put a premium on personally recruiting actors and directors for his shows, which tilt toward musicals, though not exclusively. He drafted Mr. Nunn for “A Little Night Music” and asked him afterward if there was a musical of his that he would like to revisit on a smaller scale. Mr. Nunn immediately said “Aspects of Love,” which happened to be Mr. Babani’s favorite Lloyd Webber score, and so the revival was added to the calendar with a budget of £400,000 ($612,000).
Mr. Nunn directed the original West End production of “Aspects” in 1989 and the Broadway staging a year later, and he recalled that he and Mr. Lloyd Webber had conceived “Aspects” as a sharp departure from blockbuster spectacles like their previous show, “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Based on a 1955 novella by David Garnett, “Aspects” begins with a love triangle of Europeans that grows in size and complexity over a 17-year period. Early ideas about gently balancing the love story with a small chamber orchestra and a simple design scheme soon gave way, however, to expectations of another Lloyd Webber mega-musical — how will he follow up “Phantom”? — and more music was written, and more cooks entered the producing kitchen.
“I can’t really recall the precise moment when the original ‘Aspects’ went from small scale to big scale,” Mr. Nunn said. “But I felt the story got swallowed up with those 17 or so musicians and the massive design.”
The simplified revival, which has an 8-musician, 12-instrument band, has allowed Mr. Nunn to spend time working with his cast on the show’s emotional arc. The first two weeks of rehearsal involved almost no music work; rather, he said, the cast read the lyrics, by Don Black and Charles Hart, as if they were dialogue and spent time improvising scenes to find nuances in tone, gestures, body language and readings.
Michael Arden, an American actor (“Big River” on Broadway) who plays Alex, the male lead in “Aspects,” said the feel of the Chocolate Factory forces actors “to be completely truthful with the material rather than try to emotionally project, because there’s no balcony to play to.” He added, “The people are the driving forces of the shows here, not a crashing chandelier, not a turntable, not characters flying in the air.”
“Aspects” opened on July 15 to strong reviews from critics, who generally concluded that the unvarnished staging put the poignancy of the relationships in sharp relief. Some reviews suggested that the revival was good enough to move to the West End or even Broadway. Mr. Babani said he would be thrilled if “Aspects” had a life beyond the Chocolate Factory, but he emphasized that few if any of his shows are bejeweled with special bells and whistles that might help grab the attention of London and New York producers.
“What I think is more worthy of attention,” he said, “is the bravery by our directors and team in rethinking shows in a way that cuts against people’s memories and expectations. ‘La Cage’ was a grandly produced show before here. So was ‘Night Music.’ So was ‘Aspects.’ What I like to think we give people, instead of all that grandeur, are great stories.”

Monday, July 26, 2010

"I've been already there"

America's legendary choreographer George Balanchine didn't care much about the visual arts. He wished his ballets to be performed without sets, he even disliked costumes. There's a story that Lincoln Kirstein, who founded New York City Ballet with him, once invited Balanchine to go to a museum. "No thanks," he said. "I've been to a museum".

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Redemption

No sinner can be redeemed until he comes to honor God's greatest work - himself. In order to value others we must learn to accept and value ourselves. It's not so easy as it sounds.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Barefoot Bandit

The 18-year old Colton Harris-Moore, known as the "Barefoot Bandit", eluded the authorities across North America using his wits and his fleet (sometimes bare) feet. The police said he made makeshift homes in empty houses for days or weeks at a time and somehow taught himself to fly, mastering the art of crash-landing. The boy is suspected of taking at least five planes — including once during the Vancouver Olympics — and crash landing all of them. He walked away each time. The "Barefoot Bandit" was first arrested at age 12 for several crimes, including setting fire to Stanwood Middle School. At about the same age, Mr. Harris-Moore was determined to have several psychiatric conditions, including depression, attention deficit disorder and intermittent explosive disorder, according to a later psychiatric report. He was prescribed antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs. A ninth-grade dropout, Mr. Harris-Moore had a volatile childhood and was often in conflict with his mother, Pam Kohler. His father appears to have been absent. According to public documents, child protection officials had been referred to the family at least a dozen times by the time Mr. Harris-Moore was 15. All in all a sad, but not quite unusual story. Only that the incredible ability of the 6-foot-5 Mr. Harris-Moore to fly and crash-land planes has made him an Internet antihero, celebrated by thousands of fans on Facebook.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Where To Live

Vienna, Austria takes first place for the world's best quality of living, followed by Zurich and Geneva in Switzerland, Vancouver, Canada and Auckland, New Zealand, according to the Mercer 2010 Quality of Living Survey. The survey looks at 10 categories including "Health and sanitation (medical supplies and services, infectious diseases, sewage, waste disposal, air pollution, etc)". The absolute worst place to live is Baghdad, Iraq with Bangui, Central African Republic and Dhaka, Bangladesh not far behind.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Better Take No Chance!

As William T. Sherman was trying to reorganize his brigade after the retreat from Bull Run, one of his officers, a lawyer, informed him that he was returning to New York because his three-month term of enlistment had expired. Sherman told the officer, without flinching: "Captain, if you attempt to leave without orders, it will be mutiny, and I will shoot you like a dog."- Later that afternoon President Lincoln himself appeared in his carriage to help back up the troops. As he and Sherman were sitting in his carriage, the same officer approached and said: "Mr. President, I have cause of grievance; Colonel Sherman threatened to shoot me." Lincoln, looking at Sherman and then back to the man, answered in a loud stage whisper: "Well, if I were you, I would not trust him. I believe he would do it!"

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Science

"It is a mistake to believe that a science consists in nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand only made by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one."
Sigmund Freud

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Last Stop In The Alps

As World War II drew to a close, the SS were determined to use every means at their disposal to prevent the defeat of the NS regime. One such means was to take prominent concentration camp inmates hostage for use as pawns during negotiations with the Western Allies. By order from SS ObergruppenfĂĽhrer Dr. Ernst Kaltenbrunner the hostages – many of whom had been at the mercy of the SS for years – were collected from various concentration camps and brought together in the camp at Dachau for transfer to a destination further south. The group that arrived in Niederdorf in Hochpustertal Valley on April 28, 1945 in the company of a heavily armed SS guard detail numbered 139 in total and included citizens of 17 European countries. They were liberated two days later by German Army troops (!) and taken to Hotel “Pragser Wildsee,” where their odyssey halfway through Europe ended. A few surving prisoners of those days still meet once a year at the same Hotel.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Not For An Ass

An Ass having heard some Grasshoppers chirping, was highly enchanted; and, desiring to possess the same charms of melody, demanded what sort of food they lived on to give them such beautiful voices. They replied, "The dew." The Ass resolved that he would live only upon dew, and in a short time died of hunger.
Aesop

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Philosophy Of Magic

We all know that illusionists like David Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy are deft entertainers. They perform stunning tricks, but not for one moment do we believe they have supernatural powers. We just love to see them because they demonstrate that things are not always what they seem. Therein lies their philosophy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Shakespeare

We know comparatively little about what Shakespeare's audience actually saw and heard, a gap in our knowledge that offers both advantages and dangers: Actors and directors need to mine the published texts for clues, but also get an enhanced permission to make free with them. The authentic tradition disappeared when England fell into civil war; attempts to recapture it amount to educated guesswork. There are very few points about which one can say with certainty how Shakespeare's company staged a given moment or what shadings they read into a particular speech. The plays' greatness makes the challenge to solve their mysteries that much more exciting. Every performance of Shakespeare is an adventure that may supply some startling revelation. The picture shows Lily Rabe and Al Pacino in this summer's New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park production of The Merchant Of Venice.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Unrest

"People wish to be settled. Only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Brierfield

The slave who rowed Jefferson Davis from his farm Brierfield near Vicksburg to the Mississippi steamboat that took him to Richmond where he would be the Confederate President was Ben Montgomery. The same Ben Montgomery would wind up owning Brierfield plantation after the American civil war.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Twain Upset

According to the New York Times, the University of California Press will publish soon the uncensored “Autobiography of Mark Twain”. Its content will make it clear that Twain’s opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention ran very deep. Obviously the book includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers. For example, in writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as “our uniformed assassins” and describes their killing of “six hundred helpless and weaponless savages” as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Storyteller's Credo

"Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every man's story is important, eternal, sacred."
Hermann Hesse

Monday, July 12, 2010

Technique and Creativity

Leonardo da Vinci was obsessively secretive about his techniques for mixing paints. Of course no formula for pigment or mineral spirits would allow anyone to paint like da Vinci. We tend to regard such protectiveness silly until we realize that we're acting in no way smarter. Most people put more trust in their techniques than in their creative powers. I do confess to be one of them.