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Spotlight on Two Emerging Dance Scholars – Jackie Kosoff and Jamelaih Cunningham

[On April 28, 2017, two senior Dance majors, Jackie Kosoff (mentored by Dr. Neil Baldwin), and Jamelaih Cunningham (mentored by Dr. Elizabeth McPherson), presented papers at Session A of the Montclair State University Student Research Symposium: Gender Images and Political Commentary in Arts and Media. The Creative Research Center www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch is delighted to publish the two essays herewith.]

 

The Intersectionality of Feminism and Dance, by Jackie Kosoff

I am a twenty-two year old, Caucasian, working-class woman from South Central Pennsylvana who is currently studying dance in college. I introduce myself with these labels as an explanation of where I come from causing me to see the world the way I do, integral to the standpoint feminism theory.  I grew up surrounded by sisters and a strong, divorced mother which was part of my early belief that I was a feminist, although now I know I had nearly no understanding of the full weight of that word. My lived experience as a dancer and woman has strengthened my understanding and role in feminism as it pertains to the vital concept of intersectionality, “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

This term, created by civil rights activist and scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, is often used in tandem with feminism. Crenshaw elaborates upon the necessity of intersectionality in her work, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color: “It highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.”

I have grown to realize the interconnected nature of my own social categorizations and identities through my lived experience as a dancer and feminist. I started studying dance seriously at the age of sixteen when I attended an arts high school in inner-city Harrisburg in 2011. I danced, learned, and created with students of different races, cultures, and socioeconomic standings. I began not only to understand the way people other than myself viewed the world, but also the way the world made them feel.

I entered Montclair State University as a freshman dance major in the fall of 2013. College influenced me as a student, dancer, artist, and woman as I continued to experience people who were different than myself as we got to know each other by communicating nonverbally with the art of dance. I started to understand that my feeling of my classmates’ oppressions and struggles that I did not personally face had a name: empathy. In that regard, the recent study “Engagement in dance is associated with emotional competence in interplay with others” by a team of Swedish dance scholars points out that “Dance is a fundamental form of human emotional expression … Dance activity and training seems to be involved in the body’s emotional interplay with others. There’s a more developed awareness of emotional processing and higher ability to interpret the emotions others in dancers than in non-dancers.” I also grew as a “thinking dancer,” in that I became more knowledgeable and articulate about my art.

I took part for the past three years in a highly-selective workshop seminar for dance majors, Danceaturgy, where we conceptualized what we physicalized by writing, speaking, and advocating for our art form. I began studying the Limon technique of modern dance in the 2015-2016 school year and this way of movement led me to change not only how I move but also how I approach dance on a personal and emotional level. The sensitivity of the technique allowed me to become a more open mover and person.

This deeply rooted connection was the breakthrough of intersectionality in my life. I felt a strengthening in my artistic voice as a dancer, I also felt a strengthening in my political voice. My growth was blurring lines between the different parts of my life and bringing them together.  2016 was also the first year I was eligible to vote in an election and took the opportunity to do so, as I felt that my singular voice was necessary. Pertinent to my political voice is the article “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics” by scholar Nira Yuval-Davis, who mentions Radhika Coomaraswamy, a special rapporteur of the UN Secretariat on violence against women. Coomaraswamy spoke at the World Conference Against Racism where “the term ‘intersectionality’ had become tremendously popular and was used in various UN … forums.” This subsequently led to the 58th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, where the resolution on the human rights of women stated in its first paragraph that it ‘recognized the importance of examining the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination, including their root causes from a gender perspective. ‘(Resolution E/CN.4/2002/L.59)”  I realized that, for me, intersectionality within politics allows for an evolution that crosses boundaries of social locations and identities.

During this past school year, I performed in a new work by Christian von Howard which centers on a coven of five witches, entitled to the teeth. Not only did the piece investigate the mysticism of darkness, it specifically focused on a group of powerful women. This choreography and theme allowed me to explore the power I have as a woman, even in a mystical and fictional sense while articulating it through my movement and performance.

When I look back now, as a senior, on my journey of intersectionality, one of my first memories from college was taking a freshman level writing course and tentatively raising my hand to the question “Who here is a feminist?” Very few others around me did the same. This question played an important early role in establishing the interconnectedness of dance and feminism for me. Scholar Anthea Kraut articulates the unity of dance with feminism in Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance: when she says, so powerfully, that  “… gender never functions in isolation from other axes of difference.”

Citations

Bojner Horwitz, E., Lennartsson, A. K., Theorell, T. P., & Ullen, F. (2015) Engagement in dance is associated with emotional competence in interplay with others. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1096.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241. Web.

Kraut, Anthea. Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

Yuval-Davis, N. “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 13.3 (2006): 193-209. Web.

 

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Dance as a Social Comment: Alvin Ailey’s ‘Masekela Langage,’

by Jamelaih Cunningham

Masekela Langage was choreographed in 1969 by Alvin Ailey after returning from a trip to South Africa. Ailey wanted to capture the similarities between apartheid in South Africa and the race riots in Chicago in 1968. This dance also holds sonority today in a time that often feels like the loudest voices are undermining the importance of human, civil, and equal rights. Ailey said that Masekela Langage is “a ballet about people who are ruined” with no hope and fear of no way out. (Interview, 1969). He wanted to create a decaying world full of used up people and old decaying furniture. In an interview with Ailey in 1969, he says that “langage” is a French word that he found in his research of Haitian voodoo. It can be defined as the spirit and power of a human being. But in this dance, the power of the human spirit has been irrevocably broken unlike Ailey’s more famous work Revelations in which the power of the human spirit is seen in all its glory.
The most recent Chicago race riot that occurred before the making of this piece was the riot in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With the grief Chicago was experiencing along with the heart wrenching similarities witnessed in South Africa, one would say that Masekela Langage was an appropriate work of art premiered at the right time. It was relatable and not just in one or two communities, but across the globe. It was and still is a raw representation of the racial struggles that are still occurring today. In present time, one could say that the piece is a juxtaposition between the racial issues in America today and the period of apartheid in South Africa.
Alvin Ailey was born January 5, 1931 in Rogers, Texas in his grandfather’s home, becoming the thirteenth member of the household (Revelations, 26). Ailey grew up without his biological father, moving from place to place with his mother during a very difficult time period for African Americans (Revelations, 17). Slavery had been abolished, however, segregation and inequality were still grossly afoot. The Great Depression also made conditions for African Americans worse. Ailey’s mother picked cotton, and when Ailey was about four or five, he worked the cotton fields as well (Revelations, 18). His childhood experiences definitely became sources for his choreography. He explains how he would watch party-goers, including his mother, at the Dew Drop Inn (a juke joint) as a young boy which later inspired him to create Blues Suite (Revelations, 22-23). His experience in the Southern Baptist church inspired him to create Revelations (Revelations, 23).
Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles in 1941 during World War II (Revelations, 31). His mother’s job was still of low standards. Images of his mother on her knees scrubbing the floors for the homes of white people inspired Ailey to choreograph Cry (Revelations, 32). Ailey became very interested in music and a little in dance but was concerned about pursuing dance for fear of being called a “sissy”(Revelations, 36). Dance instruction for African Americans was also hard to come by. Ailey went through a number of sports and landed on gymnastics (Revelations, 38). Ailey soon met a girl named Carmen de Lavallade, who danced for the school assemblies, and she eventually introduced him to Lester Horton and finally the courage and option to dance was born (Revelations, 44).
Ailey attended UCLA after high school, but soon realized that his career wasn’t in the books; it was in dance (Revelations, 49). He continued dancing with Lester Horton and worked small side jobs. After Lester Horton’s death, Ailey began choreographing for the Horton Company and even premiered on Broadway (Revelations). Eventually, Ailey got tired of being told what to do and wanted to express his own ideas while giving African Americans a place to dance (Revelations, 89). He gathered a few dancers and began having classes with them in a “dingy, dark Michael’s Studio from two o’clock in the afternoon to six o’clock’’ (Revelations, 90). Blues Suite was the company’s first presentation (Revelations, 91). After their debut, Ailey was able to get a much bigger space for the company to rehearse in (Revelations, 93). From then, the repertory grew and their shows took them around the world; first to Southeast Asia (Revelations, 103). Alvin Ailey died of complications from HIV/AIDS on December 1, 1989 (Revelations, 148). The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is still a very successful company and school that tours the world all year-round.
Alvin Ailey’s influence in choreographing Masekela Langage was first the music. He was introduced to the music of Hugh Masekela when he heard it in Los Angeles (Interview, 1969). He was moved by the South African jazz feel of it and began collecting every album. yet Ailey was inspired by the powerful feeling and emotions behind the music and how inviting it was. In its celebration of African culture, Ailey said it was both “beautiful and painful” in his interview in 1969.  Ailey took a trip to South Africa in 1967 and searched for ordinary life, where you might see a group of people outside dancing or a couple arguing. He wanted to experience the good and the bad. Amongst these experiences, Ailey could not ignore how much the interactions of the people and the events taking place resembled life in Chicago. This created another driving inspiration for the piece.
In the interview with Alvin Ailey in 1969, Ailey stated that Masekela Langage was dedicated to Katherine Dunham and that all the women in the piece had a piece of Katherine Dunham in them. Katherine Dunham was an African American pioneer of modern dance born in Chicago in 1909. Alvin Ailey said that Dunham was Chicago, so that it was only right to dedicate a piece with Chicago influence to her (Interview, 1969). She is known for her expressive movement and her dominating energy especially in her films.
Masekela Langage is a visual interpretation of life in Africa. This dance shows how images of life in Africa parallel life in less fortunate areas, specifically Chicago at the time of the creation. Ailey uses 6 pieces of music from Hugh Masekela’s albums. The mix of jazz and African style is very catching. It is a unique choice of music that really heightened the piece overall. The piece begins with dancers entering the stage and setting a character for themselves. Instantly one can see that the dancers are civilians and the setting is a public commonplace. As the dance continues, the dancers interact with each other both conflictingly and emphatically. The dancers begin by dancing with each other, however, this soon turns into a display of unfortunate events and physical altercations.
With the use of miming and emotion driving their movement, the dancers successfully tell stories of rape, murder, and the joy of just being alive. The piece ends with the death of a civilian. The current ending where the dancers leave the dead dancer and continue with their normal tasks resonates the most. This can be compared to the repeat shootings that we have been forced to witness, but also forced to keep living as if nothing has happened.
The piece has grown tremendously from the time it was first danced in July 1969 to present day. Ailey was nowhere near complete when he first premiered this piece. There are several emotions depicted in the piece from pain to anger to a forced sense of fun. It looks as if the dancers are creating individual scenarios within the solos, duets, and small group sections. Overtime, the costuming, set, and even the movement quality has changed to better communicate his message.

In a 1969 filmed version, the women are dressed in unitards and the men are wearing a simple top and pants. The versions that followed also had costumes that were very simple. This created less chances of distraction, however, it did not necessarily add to the story. In the versions today, everyone is dressed differently in clothes that represent the 1960’s and the setting. The individualism helps the audience understand each character in their own story and makes the stage pop in a different way. The reference that the costumes create makes the image much more real. The lack of detailed costumes and supporting props could be due to Ailey’s desire to get the message to an audience without offending anyone or getting too personal. It could also be due to the fact that the time the piece was created and the time depicted in the piece were one in the same.
            Ailey began to elaborate on his set in 1970. The set began as just folding chairs to accompany each dancer in 1969. In the 1970 filmed version the set consisted of an old fan spinning on the ceiling and a variety of different old style chairs. There are tables and chairs set up in the back and a jukebox in the downstage corner. This scenery paints a more realistic picture of a bar. It also adds to the creation of the decaying world that Ailey mentioned in his interview in 1969. The use of the jukebox also gives an outlet to the changing music which remains the same from the first filmed version. At this point, Ailey has had a chance to step back to look for what the piece needed. From this video, one could say that the supporting items were one of the first things to change to further develop the piece.
            Masekela Langage is a play with no words just like classical ballets. The dancers use miming to relay the message in each scenario. The movement in the earlier versions is generally pretty simple. In the newer versions, however, the motifs are more noticeable and some of the movements look enhanced and more intricate. There is also a difference in the connection between the dancers before the four duets began dancing. It seems like there is more hostility in the air. One of the male dancers shoves another male and female dancer before beginning the section. There is also more interaction with the jukebox which creates the illusion that the dancers are controlling the music. In having more time with the piece, the dancers are able to settle more into their characters. The duet between the two males fighting looks much more connected and better resembles an actual fight. The release of the movement looks to have been emphasized a lot more in the newer versions. The cast is also changing which can have an impact on the experience taking place on stage.
In the end of the 1970 version, the dancers pick up the dead dancer and look to the audience (Masekela Langage, 1970). This choice was new and communicated a different image. Ignoring the dancer showed how easy it is for people of that environment to continue with life after a tragic death, however, this alternate ending looks more like a plea for change. Ailey may have wanted to focus everyone’s attention on the social injustice of that time and catalyze action. Today, the ending reverts back to the version filmed in 1969. The dancers leave the dead dancer on the ground stretched out as they repeat the opening section (Masekela Langage, 1978). This reads much more powerful than picking up the dancer. It shows the actual reactions of everyday people to the unexplainable brutal deaths.

Amongst many other critiques and articles on The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Jennifer Dunning takes a closer look into the head of a performer in Masekela Langage by speaking with Marilyn Banks. In this newspaper article, Banks explains how she attacks certain movements and what she is thinking about when transitioning between pieces in the show. In the article she explains how she is normally expected to be comical and how she is yearning for a more serious role like Cry (Dunning, 12). However, getting into the character for Masekela Langage was still very much a challenge. The heading before Banks begin to talk about Masekela Langage reads “The Magic Can Come Hard” (Dunning, 12).  What Banks means by this is that rehearsals for Masekela Langage are sometimes boring but when it comes to the big night, she has to put herself in the mindset of hatred. Banks tells Dunning, ”It’s one of the hardest for me. You have to bring out a lot of hate. Alvin said to go back and remember something someone did to you” (Dunning, 12). She also tells Dunning that she thinks of starving people and people killed with chains. After the performance, the dancers are emotionally affected. Banks states “Everyone in the company is real tense. They run up to their dressing rooms afterward to get out of it” (Dunning, 12).

The dance has received positive reviews since its premiere, with critics particularly focusing on the dramatic content as well as the pain and darkness of the events depicted. In 1969 after the premiere of the work, Anna Kisselgoff described Masekela Langage as being Ailey’s most militant piece, but that the message is universal rather than about one specific event or time. She says the dance “is political in a nonpolitical manner” (57). Dancers Kelvin Rotardier, Judith Jamison, and George Faison most impressed Kisselgoff (57).
In 1970, Don McDonagh wrote a review on Masekela Langage. McDonagh felt that the dancers captured the intense burdens and conditions very well. McDonagh acknowledged Judith Jamison for her solo that was full of anguish, Kelvin Rotardier as the citizen, and Michele Murray as a “soft-sprung dynamo” (McDonagh, 32). He has an overall positive attitude toward Masekela Langage and the company. McDonagh explains it as having “sympathetic rapport with the stylistic inflections of African trumpeter Hugh Masekela” (32). From reading this review, one could say that the changes and additions Ailey made from the earliest versions were successful. The message stroked the targeted emotions according to Don McDonagh.
Jennifer Dunning critiqued Masekela Langage in December, 1978. Dunning describes the piece as being “pure theatre-dance” with “larger than life personality” (Dunning, C15). Dunning also states “Masekela Langage might be the dark reverse of Revelations” (C15). Dunning mentions the clear images of violence, sexuality, and the images parallel to conditions in South Africa
Gia Kourlas’ very recent critique shows how successful the company is still in delivering the message and evoking emotions. Kourlas understands the piece to be about the parallels of apartheid and life in 1960’s Chicago. She compares this work to that of Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America which also visualizes a social issue in less fortunate families. The music resonated with Kourlas a great deal, however, she stated “With quiet, measured brutality, it was something of a tableau vivant coming to life as it told, through spurts of agitated movement and biting stillness, how violence and prejudice can make a place crumble and how despair and defiance go hand in hand (Kourlas).”
In today’s society, the violence is rising between police officers and minorities, particularly African Americans. There have been times in the past few years where an African American has been killed everyday for four days straight by a police officer. This has been happening all over the US and has started riots and movements everywhere. For African Americans, the world can feel like a jail that they may never make it out of especially in low income neighborhoods. With lack of money, opportunity, and guidance, many African Americans find themselves doing illegal things to survive or happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. After an encounter with the law it is hard to maintain a comfortable life. This fact along with the fear of judicial encounters gives reason to why Masekela Langage speaks such volumes today.
Alvin Ailey’s work is heavily influenced by the society he grew up in while also celebrating African American life and culture. Images that Ailey saw are replicated in many of his works and were commonly the base of his inspiration. Because history often repeats itself, the importance of Ailey’s works such as Masekela Langage remains the same if not greater. Audiences can still relate to brutal conditions faced in a low income community. Masekela Langage exposed these brutal conditions, exploring them through the power of movement. Choreographers and dancers have power they may not always realize to enact social change and expose social conditions that need changing. Ailey’s choreography shows that he was well aware of that power and used it to great effect.

 

Works Cited
Ailey Organization. “Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Masekela Langage.” YouTube, 09 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
Ailey, Alvin, and A. Peter. Bailey. Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group, 1997. Print.
Carman, Joseph. “Reviews, New York City: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.” Dance Magazine Apr. 1999: 82-84. Print.
Dunning, Jennifer. “Dance: Ailey Stages ‘Langage'” New York Times 18 Dec. 1978: C15. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Dunning, Jennifer. “The Exuberant Humor of Marilyn Banks.” New York Times 12 Dec. 1980, sec. C: 12. New York Times Company, 29 June 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
“Interview with Alvin Ailey.” Interview. Performing Arts Research Collections – Dance. MGZTC 3-59, 1969. Radio.
Kisselgoff, Anna. “Dance: Militant ‘Masekela Langage'” New York Times 21 Nov. 1969: 57.  Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Kourlas, Gia. “An Evening of Ronald K. Brown Lifts Alvin Ailey’s Season.” New York Times. N.p., 27 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. Masekela Langage [videorecording]. performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Imprint, 1969.
Masekela Langage [videorecording]. performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Imprint, 1970.
Masekela Langage [videorecording]. performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Imprint, 1978.
McDonagh, Don. “Alvin Ailey Troupe In ‘Dance for Six’ By Joyce Trisler.” New York Times n.d.: 32. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Reiter, Susan. “Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, City Center” Dance News [New York] Dec. 1979: 12. Print.
 

A Letter from New Guinea – by William H. Thomas

Kairik Airport – Porgera Station – Enga Province 

Papua New Guinea – March 3, 2017

Dear Neil: I’m cradling a cup of tea and watching the sunrise over the Porgera Valley in Papua New Guinea.  Although we are straddling the equator at over seven thousand feet, mornings at this airstrip are damp and raw. I am searching for breaks in the layer of clouds that are packed in the Valley, hoping to finding a crack that can allow a plane to get through, land and get me to my next flight. These clouds conceal some of the world’s most rugged mountains.  In spite of the safety briefings we receive before every flight, I have never heard of anyone surviving a crash landing in New Guinea. In the highlands, there is no water to land on and nothing is flat. I‘ve experienced delays like this on nearly every field trip here. Each time I remind myself of something an old Australian bush pilot told me that has since become my mantra during such delays: “You don’t have to take off, but you do have to land.

This is the second of the seven legs on my returning flights to the States. I began two days ago with a forty-minute helicopter ride from a clearing at the juncture of the Urubwa and Laigaip Rivers. One day to get my gear stowed and clothes washed, then a 4 AM ride to this airstrip. I really do hope that I can get out today. When it comes to air travel, the bloom is off the rose.

My next stop is Port Moresby – the capital of Papua New Guinea — for meetings with the Minister of the Environment, the Directors of the Conservation & Environment Protection Agency (their EPA), the Office of Climate Change and Development, and the U.N. We have been awarded five years of funding through the UN”s Global Environment Fund, and now I need to nail down the details.

For the last month, my days have been filled with an endless array of security checks, lines and delays, punctuated by a camping trip to unexplored New Guinea to work on a conservation program with a group of people who have one of the highest recorded murder rates on the planet. When I’m not flying, I am sitting on the ground, or sharing a hut with rats, mosquitos and an assortment of flying insects and predators that would boggle an entomologist’s mind.

When the sunlight begins to backlight the clouds, the walls of limestone of the Kaijende Highlands slowly emerge from the shadows. Dark green and vertical, these sheer cliffs border the airstrip. They dominate the valley and make the landing approach narrow and tricky. The Kaijende Highlands are the second protected area that I have secured (the Laigaip River catchment is the first). They sit 12,000 feet above sea level and surround a unique alpine grassland ecosystem, rapidly disappearing in the tropics. The valley awakens and smoke begins to curl from the huts that line the valley below me, and I can see the birds beginning to move toward the airstrip. Willy Wagtails and Black-throated Robins perch on the electrical wires. Above me, snail kites begin to drift on the thermals looking for prey.

At times like this (and there are many), the lack of sleep and the petty annoyances of travel melt away and I realize that I have indeed been blessed. Most of the areas I visit are roadless and, therefore, unexplored. Topographic lines set at 40-meter intervals blur the map so that the green becomes a muddy brown. Try to imagine a place the size of Massachusetts with fewer than 3,000 people and so steep and wracked by earthquakes that no-one has dared to attempt to put a road through. Central New Guinea’s mountains are so steep that they separate cultures that speak a thousand different languages – one-fifth of the planet’s total — the most culturally and biologically diverse place on earth.

I have spent most of my adult life exploring this ground on foot, and so my trip is an endless series of switchbacks, tree roots and river crossings.  Most of time my head is down, watching my step and walking as fast as I can to keep my guide in sight. There are no marked trails (to the uninitiated there are no trails — period). You spend hours wet and muddy trying to get to the next camp before sundown. It once took me thirteen hours to cover eleven miles.

I am waiting for a helicopter. Helicopters can turn days of hiking into hours of sightseeing. My next flight will turn a six-hour bus ride into a forty-minute flight. Likewise the flight from the clearing at the Urubwa allowed me to eliminate a week of hard hiking and several dangerous, big river crossings.

More importantly, I can now — literally — see the forest for the trees. From the air, New Guinea is breathtaking. I can see trees blooming. Their red, yellow, purple and white flowers – flowers I normally see by craning my neck and peering up into the canopy – now spread before me like a bouquet of baby’s breath. Steep valleys are transformed from obstacles to beautiful landscapes with endless gradations of green. Flocks of birds float silently below me. Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Brahiminy kites and the occasional flock of hornbills erupts from the otherwise endless carpet of green as the helicopter spooks them from their perches.

With this new vantage point comes a new perspective upon the people who live here. New Guinea’s highlands are a tough place to live. Life expectancy around the Urubwa River was thirty-two years old at the turn of this century. Traditional ways still dominate life. People eat from their gardens. Most cannot read and are suspicious of anything they don’t hear from me directly. Meetings of the local councils can last all day and usually involve countless translations as my accented Neo-Melanesian Tok Pisin is converted first into the local language and then into the regional dialect. Nothing happens quickly and nothing ever seems settled.

However, now that I am flying instead of walking and converting my tribal meetings into ministerial actions, I no longer feel like I am trudging through quicksand. I have begun to relax and appreciate the land and the people who have helped to shape my life.

When I first arrived back in 1988, nobody used money. I paid my informants in matches and salt. I collected all the stone axes and knives I could carry and every family had a bone knife. I had to carry in all my supplies and trade goods. For the first ten years, each field trip looked like the line of porters you used to see in Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies. Over the years, these people have taught me to live in the bush and to identify the birds. These people unraveled the web of pollination and seed dispersal that connects these forests. These people patiently explained to me the intricacies of their lives.

Most importantly, New Guineans have taught me all the lessons essential to affecting social change – lessons that you can’t learn in  school. Through them, and their desire to achieve a consensus, I have gained the patience to listen.  I have learned that I need everybody to understand what we are trying to achieve through a protected area before we can move forward. I have learned the patience to sit through meetings and the understanding that in a society with no formal leadership positions, it is important that everyone has the opportunity to voice an opinion, to air a grievance – to feel like they matter.  I have learned that ideas and abilities can win the day – if you have the persistence to see things through.

The clouds are clearing. It looks like I will be able to get to Mt. Hagen in time to make my connection to Port Moresby (there are no lights on the airstrips so you have to fly and land during daylight hours. Likewise there are no roads that connect Port Moresby to the highlands – so you can’t drive).  I will look out at the vast tracts of forest and the wild jumble of mountains formed by the collision of the Pacific and Australian plates and collapsed volcanoes that from the air appear more like fishbowls.

I am working to create protected areas, design a carbon-trading scheme and meet with government ministers. The children of the families that first took me in back in 1988 are now my partners in a globally significant conservation project. Not bad for a kid from a mill town in Ohio.

Such is the stuff that goes through my head as we turn eastward to fly over the coastal mangrove swamps.

This landscape has shaped my life.

Bill Thomas 

 – – – – –

William H.  (Bill) Thomas, Ph.D., is Director of the New Jersey School of Conservation at Montclair State University. Funded by the National Geographic Society, Conservation International and the Indo-Pacific Conservation Alliance, he has conducted ethno-ecological research in Papua New Guinea since 1988. He is currently working to pilot the Forest Stewards program (http://www.indopacific.org/foreststewards.asp) with the Hewa Province people of Papua New Guinea as well as in the Kaijende Highlands of the Enga province. Both are in New Guinea’s Central Range and part of the largest, least explored and most diverse wilderness on the island (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29875909/) His data has led to increasingly-sophisticated interpretations of how native peoples’ awareness of their environment is encoded, processed, and utilized. With this research, Thomas has developed a new methodology that has been recognized by UNESCO as a “Best Practice.” http://www.unesco.org/most/bpik12-2.htm; teamed with Conservation International to discover 50 new species in the heart of New Guinea http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29875909/; and received a Genographic Legacy grant to develop a local language guides to the Strickland River drainage.  With governments struggling over shrinking natural habitats and vanishing native cultures, Bill Thomas’ research has global implications that may provide a blueprint for the rational and scientific preservation of both. 

 

 

 

 

Resist – Persist – Perform! A Theatre and Teaching Manifesto for Now – by Jessica Silsby Brater

Jessica Silsby Brater is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the BA and MA Programs in Theatre Studies at Montclair State University. She is the author of Ruth Maleczech at Mabou Mines: Woman’s Work and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn-based theatre company Polybe + Seats.

At this fraught moment in our history as a nation, when diverse and democratic bodies are exposed to radical dangers, who and what we put on stage takes on new importance. So does our commitment to creating sites that support open, vigorous and educational conversations about who – and what – is on those stages. Theatres—and the classrooms where we make work and talk about making it—are safe places now, as in past periods of crisis, for critical thinking, emotional experience, kinetic and cerebral exchange, and embodied political activism.

We at universities are engaged in the business of promoting critical thinking, which requires us to support the claims we make with evidence…you know… those pesky “facts.” Not the alternative kind. The kind that come, for example, from quoting the text. Claim: Masha is unhappy. Evidence? When Medvedenko asks her why she always wears black, she says “I’m in mourning for my life.” See how easy that was? First page of The Seagull.  Didn’t hurt a bit.

As much as I love it when students give back something I said to them in class on a midterm exam (They are listening to me! They wrote it down!), what I’m really interested in is helping them build a strong methodology with which to use the information they receive from me, from their reading, from their performances, from other teachers, etc. etc., to formulate and then clearly express their own points of view about the material they encounter, which they can defend on the basis of rigorous research.

And do I have empathy for the plight of the student trying to frame a thesis who is pulled in a million different directions with classes, productions, work-study, family commitments? Yes, I do. Why? Well, my friends, we in the theatre are in the business of practicing empathy. Why else would we be so devoted to going around pretending to be somebody else all the time?

The university theatre community has a particular responsibility at this moment when American democracy, diversity, and difference are being questioned. We are specially trained and uniquely poised to address what threatens these values. Theatre makers sometimes take what we understand for granted. We shouldn’t; when an activist for Amnesty International asked me how to incorporate more meaningful performance into the resistance movement, I directed him to Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors.

And so, last fall, my colleague Kathryn Syssoyeva at Dixie State University posted a call on Facebook to create what is now called Acts of Resistance, a series in which campuses across the globe read the same anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-fascist, anti-nativist play on the same date. My colleague here at MSU, Mark Hardy, helped launch Ionesco’s Rhinoceros as our first show. Kathryn and I took the concept a step further in developing Classrooms without Borders, in which students on our campus and hers are responsible for staging this series. The students interact with each other to share their experiences throughout the semester via Skype. At the end of the semester, in May, her students from Dixie State in Utah will join our students here to stage the final reading in this year’s series. We are using our distance as the impetus for intimacy and advocacy.

Here are our guiding principles:

  1. Critical thinking and creative activity are acts of resistance. Doing either of these is patriotic. Using evidence to support a claim is subversive.
  1. No walls! Open borders, open classrooms, open theatre spaces. The theatre is the classroom, the classroom is the university, and the university is the community.
  1. Take aim at racism, fascism, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism with texts and performances as artillery.
  1. Arm yourself with theatre history: Some writers have gone through this before (Mayakovsky, Ionesco, Brecht, Beckett, Fo, Havel). Some have been going through it the whole time (Kennedy, Parks, Cruz, Nottage, Split Britches, Jacobs-Jenkins). Make use of what they have to offer you.
  1. Put diverse bodies onstage and in your syllabus: a range of shapes, sizes, colors, cultural backgrounds, gender identifications, perspectives. Put them onstage in plays where race, gender, and ethnicity matter — and in performances where they are least expected. (h/t Richard Schechner, and hello again, 1989).
  1. Your stage can be anywhere. Street corner, kitchen, classroom, hallway, front porch, back porch. Even an actual stage.
  1. Fuente Ovejuna did it! Rise up, speak out, stand in solidarity. Be Ruby Dee, not Elia Kazan. (h/t Lope de Vega and hello again, c. 1612)
  1. Persist in acts of resistance.

– – – –

We invite you to join us as we explore plays that help to illuminate the circumstances we are living through in this moment in America. You can participate as a reader, listener, and/or contributor to an open conversation.

Interested in reading? Contact Christl Stringer:  stringerc1@mail.montclair.edu.

Other questions? Contact Jessica Brater: braterj@montclair.edu.

COMING SOON!

Suzan-Lori Parks – VENUS – Sunday 4/2 at 5pm in 1250 Life Hall

Naomi Iizuka – ANON(YMOUS) – Sunday 4/23 at 5pm in 1250 Life Hall

Co-sponsored by the Department of Theatre & Dance and the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Montclair State University.

 

 

 

 

Iphigenia “Remixed” – A Director’s Rite of Passage – by Heather Benton

Iphigenia at Aulis, directed by Heather Benton for the Department of Theatre & Dance in the College of the Arts at Montclair State University, opens Thursday, November 3rd and runs through Sunday, November 6th at the Alexander Kasser Theater.

[Buy tickets here and then come back and read her story.]

I have always been deeply fascinated and disturbed by the ancient story of Iphigenia. What is the psychological progression that encourages and justifies the most extreme, inhuman acts in the name of war? Last year, I began to ruminate about what it might mean for college students to enter into this material.

I wondered how an audience inhabiting a generation foregrounding individual opinion over communal experience might receive and respond to a play with roots in the solidarity of the ancient Greek culture that informed the birth of tragedy.

Inherent in the archetypal form of Iphigenia is the beauty and danger of belonging to something greater than oneself: “While so much of the secular, industrialized world has lost touch with power of rituals and myth…We still ache for the transcendent and divine. We yearn to know that we are a part of something bigger. And we are relieved to discover that we are not alone, especially across time.” [Bryan Doerries, The Theatre of War, 27-28]

I began my research by reading as many translations, adaptations, short stories and poems as I could get my hands on that were inspired by the story of Iphigenia, and gathered text and ideas along the way. But every version of the story seemed to have its own unique spin, incompatible with the others, and I ended up with little more than a sprawling collage crammed with too many ideas and lacking a defined central thematic core. My efforts at creating a fresh and relevant version of Iphigenia having come to naught, it was back to the drawing board.

I returned to Euripides’ original text and refocused my energies upon attempting to ascertain the intent of the playwright and how audiences originally received the play. Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides’ last extant tragedy, was produced posthumously near the end of the Peloponnesian War: “The audiences contained a large number, perhaps even a majority, of veterans. And we know that all three of the major tragic playwrights (including Euripides) were veterans…the plays were written by veterans, and largely for veterans – [this] makes whatever these playwrights have to say about war particularly worthy of our attention, since we haven’t had that kind of dynamic between playwrights and their audiences in theatrical literature since.” [Ellen Mc Laughlin, preface to The Greek Plays, xvii]

Fortuitously, over this past summer, a colleague recommended Bryan Doerries’s The Theatre of War to me, and I was affected and inspired by the author’s passionate, personal treatise upon the necessity of Greek tragedy in our modern world. Doerries founded his ‘Theatre of War,’ a project that presents Greek plays to service members and their families, in order to initiate a dialogue about the effects of war. My indelible take-away from Doerries was a simple definition of Greek tragedy that I couldn’t seem to shake: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Indeed, a first reading without sensitivity or understanding of the complexity of military culture could easily lead to the rationalized conclusion that Iphigenia is simply anti-military and anti-war. Although I did not grow up in a “military family” per se (my father had returned from Vietnam and left the Navy before I was born), I did bear witness to a constant barrage of military tales spun by every male member of my extended family who had served. In retrospect, I have always felt as if I were living in a kind of limbo between deep respect and deep suspicion of military culture. As I began to view the play through this new, more honest lens, both ends of this spectrum seemed to ring true in Iphigenia as well. My research took a turn into American military culture, specifically military spouse (Milspouse) websites, blogs on newlyweds facing deployment, military weddings, and training drills and rhetoric for new recruits.

I asked myself: If Iphigenia were a commander’s daughter and suddenly found herself engaged to a war hero she had never met who was about to deploy, what advice would she be receiving from her mother, and from her best friends? This path presented some compelling options for choral text that led to my reexamination of the chorus in the play.

Another personal and theatrical obsession of mine has been the power of ideology and the resultant behavior of large groups in extreme circumstances. The Greek chorus is the perfect vehicle to examine and exploit this phenomenon. In Euripides’ original play, the chorus was comprised of a group of women from Chalcis, foreigners who had arrived in Aulis to witness the glory of the Greek Army before it sailed to Troy. I re-imagined how the Greek chorus functions in Iphigenia and expanded it into two choruses: one of women (the women of Iphigenia’s court, future military wives, who would travel with her to Aulis), and one of men (the deployed soldiers of the Greek army trapped on the shores of Aulis), to create a binary effect: How might these traditional gender roles crash up against one another in this military culture within the swirling cauldron of the circumstances of the play?

Furthermore, closer in alignment with my institutional role as a university drama professor, if the chorus’s function is to amplify the action, and we are exploring the collision of young men and women on the brink of war, where better to explore these dynamics than on a college campus, with actors in their late ‘teens and early twenties?

The idea of dueling and intersecting choruses gaining momentum, I realized that in restructuring the chorus of Iphigenia I was short-circuiting a crucial function: connection with the audience. Perhaps a new character was needed to fulfill that role, a character who wasn’t a participant in the story itself, but rather an observer — a spectator. Thus did The Witness emerge, a citizen-journalist who arrives in Aulis to document the grandeur of the Greek Army before it sets sail for Troy and, in so doing, discovers the more intriguing and dangerous story unfolding around him.

Our modern fascination with documenting and capturing every moment on our electronic devices, thereby (re)constructing memory and revising history, was the perfect entry point for my additional character, The Witness. In our high-speed society, with the power to record and document every lived instant, what are the consequences that result when we distance the truth from what we choose to memorialize?

As a community grappling with the complexity of living in a violent world while pursuing our fast-paced lives, we are exposed to the onslaught of updates and newsfeeds on the latest horrific events that arrive delivered to our hand-held devices every single moment of every day. Rarely, if ever, are we given the opportunity to connect in real space and time in a shared communal experience that allows us to stop, reflect, question, and grieve.

For that reason,to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” we welcome our audience to join us as participants in the events of the play. From antiquity, the theatre has been a sacred space for honest questioning and reflection. We hope that the experience of Iphigenia at Aulis will open a path to understanding, empathy and change in the world. Buy tickets here

— Heather Benton teaches acting and movement in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of the Arts at Montclair State University, where she is an assistant professor and coordinator for the B.F.A. Acting program. An actor/ writer/ director specializing in physical and devised theatre, she has created work for the undergroundzero festival in NYC (Chasing Immortality: A Performance Lecture, Automotive with East River Commedia, Half Awake and Falling Through the Sky with Theatre Trouve); the Acting Company at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC; Kenyon College; and MSU. Recent original devised pieces include Dark Matter: Underking1 and the Code of Light as co-creator with Molly Rice (THE COLONY21, Montana Repertory Theatre); and House on Fire: Six Stories by Tennessee Williams Remixed (The Acting Company at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts). Benton holds an MFA in acting from American Repertory Theatre/ Moscow Art Theatre at Harvard University.

Iphigenia at Aulis is a partially-devised production featuring text from Don Taylor’s translation from Euripides, original text in Ancient Greek (translated by Mary English and Jerise Fogel); contributions from the modern adaptations Iphigenia and Other Daughters by Ellen Mc Laughlin and Iphigenia 2.0 by Charles Mee; selections from The Iliad of Homer; “non-theatrical” text from Milspouse websites, original text by the cast, and the writings of Heather Benton. Buy tickets here

 

The Lost Conversation — and a Framework for New Ones: A Librarian’s Perspective – By Catherine Baird

[Catherine Baird is the Online and Outreach Services Librarian at Montclair State University’s Harry A. Sprague Library. She has an M.L.I.S. from the University of Western Ontario as well as an M.A. in German from the University of British Columbia. Before joining MSU, Catherine was a Librarian at Ontario’s Sheridan College and at McMaster University. To her current role here, she brings deep knowledge of learning, teaching, technology, communications, and libraries. Her current projects include seeking a better understanding of the information behavior of students and faculty, as well as creating a coordinated approach to information literacy instruction, including online instruction, at Montclair State. ]

As an academic librarian, I’m experienced at the art of the reference interview. In a nutshell, this means I ask a series of questions to ascertain the information needed (i.e., the research question, the intended information use, what the library user already knows and what gaps still exist, and so on.) It’s not a set list of questions; it’s a conversation. Through this conversation, the role I play is one of an intermediary, connecting the student researcher with the needed source, tool or research strategy.

In today’s information-rich world, since student researchers are able, unassisted, to access a multitude of sources, including websites, online texts, and digital media, this conversation is often bypassed. Even the library’s print and online subscription collections can be navigated via a self-service model from the library website or through Google Scholar. In fact, librarians conduct usability studies and examine the user experience of their websites and search tools to try to improve and perfect this self-service portal. It’s only when the student hits a barrier (overwhelmed by too much information, poor quality information, unable to find information, a paywall, a book or journal not available through the library’s collection or subscriptions) that he or she may seek help from a librarian.

So, in today’s information-rich, self-guided world, who is asking the questions that the librarian once posed during a reference interview? Who is guiding and helping the student researcher to construct these questions to identify what they already know and what information they need to seek out? Who is asking the student how they plan to use the information and, depending upon this use, what type of information would make the best evidence?

One of the activities I engage in on a regular basis is the research consultation. This is a one-on-one session, usually with an undergraduate or graduate student, where we work through the student’s assignment or research project. We discuss the questions they have, what they already know, how they know what they already know, where and how we might find (authoritative) information, and of course, search strategies. Time after time, I hear these words from the student as our conversation draws to a close: “I wish I’d known this earlier.”

What I really hear is, “I wish I’d known to ask these questions.”

If you don’t know that you can ask questions, or aren’t sure which questions to ask, you’re going to have a tough time conducting good research.

To some extent, these questions are now being asked in the classroom, under the guidance of the instructor. They are sometimes even driving the progression of the course or course activities (problem-based learning, active learning approaches); and, as a librarian, I too have adopted these strategies and approaches when invited to deliver a guest lecture about research strategies.

Some faculty members and instructors are surprised when the approach I take is not solely focused upon training the students to use a particular research tool, such as a database or the library catalog. This kind of “point-here, click-there” instruction has its place (right here), but only infrequently do I find students making an emotional connection to this lesson.   As crazy as it sounds, learning how to construct a keyword search in a research database limiting your search to fewer than fifty relevant results that appear in peer-reviewed, academic sources, isn’t what it used to be.

In 2015, the Association of College and Research Libraries released the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. It defines “Information Literacy” as “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.”

I believe that teaching information literacy can offer a solution to many of the problems I hear instructors list when it comes to their students’ research abilities. (i.e., My students don’t know what a journal is. My students don’t know how to do research. My students are citing junk sources. My students are plagiarizing.) Unfortunately, today, information literacy has remained largely a #librarianproblem.

Together with the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000), the Framework is having a big impact on the instructional activities of academic librarians. The Framework also presents an opportunity for librarians and faculty to work collaboratively to help our students become better researchers.

The six “frames” or “core ideas” that are expressed in the Framework are:

  • Authority Is Constructed and Contextual
  • Information Creation as a Process
  • Information Has Value
  • Research as Inquiry
  • Scholarship as Conversation
  • Searching as Strategic Exploration

Along with others in my profession, I am working toward motivating and enabling faculty and instructors to infuse their courses with opportunities for students to engage with these six fundamental Framework concepts. Instead of research being something that happens one day in class, or perhaps during a visit to the library, I would like to see an ongoing conversation taking place.   In my ideal construct, I want to see students develop a sense of agency when it comes to doing their own research for coursework (or lifework!), and to be motivated and empowered to ask questions, read, sift, create understanding, make decisions about what to select, listen to and maybe eventually cite and decide what to information to ignore, set aside or disagree with.

Research is a creative process, filled with ups and downs, clarity and confusion, questions and answers, and serendipitous discoveries. Some may argue that it can’t be taught. As someone who has been teaching research for the last ten years of my career, I do agree that it can be taught poorly. But I’ve also experienced great successes.

The kind of truly engaged and sophisticated research I have been writing about here is a process, and it’s not a speedy one, but it’s definitely a conversation worth having.

 

 

The (Un)broken Promise of Art – by Dr. Pablo P.L. Tinio

The Director of the Creative Research Center was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to write this essay, an opportunity to informally discuss my research on the psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and the arts. I decided to use this platform to take a step back and highlight the “big picture” regarding the work that some of my colleagues and I are doing.

For a long time now, we have talked about the fact that a lot of good comes out of art: art challenges us, museums of art are important to society, and experiences involving art have mental health benefits. Most of us are privileged in that we have relatively easy access to art. We could go see a Picasso in a museum, watch Chicago on Broadway, and see an opera at the Met. We spend a good amount of time and money doing such things. Aesthetic experiences such as these are usually engaging, often exhilarating, and at times, saddening, frustrating, or awe inspiring. They push us cognitively and emotionally. They move us.

As my friends and mentors Jeff and Lisa Smith (both at the University of Otago, New Zealand) say, experiences of art transform us: we come out of the encounter different from when we walked in—not only transformed, but also carrying stories we cannot wait to pay forward to others. What’s there not to like?

John Dewey, Elliot Eisner, Maxine Greene, and Lev Vygotsky among many others have espoused the value of experiences with art. This is especially the case with children. In her book, Invented Worlds, Ellen Winner describes children’s natural tendency to make art, from the spontaneous, unrestrained scribbles of a toddler, to the stick figure sketches of a preschooler and life-like drawings of an adolescent. This tendency is present in most cultures. Historically, our schools have provided outlets for children’s natural and intrinsically motivated desires to experiment, imagine, and create. School curricula have provided opportunities for children to express themselves creatively and artistically. Art and aesthetics education have been a significant part of American education—from arts and crafts projects in classrooms and formal art clubs and courses, to field trips to art museums. This is all because people have long believed that children benefit from art.

Children’s preoccupation with art has not changed much. But our schools have. There are fewer opportunities to engage frequently and meaningfully with art. There is less funding for art programs, which means fewer art classes and fewer field trips to art museums. There is also less integration of art with other subjects. A greater mismatch now exists between what children need, what they could benefit from, what they seem to naturally do, and what is provided in schools. We could debate endlessly about the reasons behind this shift. We could talk about the increasing emphasis on testing or technology or teacher quality. But in this essay, I will highlight what I call the “promise of art,” which I believe is at the root of why, as educators and researchers, we are unable to re-establish art’s foothold in education.

The idea that art does good things—what I call the “promise”—is actually problematic, not because there is convincing evidence against it, but because we have not done enough to show strong evidence for it. The promise of art is not a false promise, but a promise with a level of significance that has not yet been shown. There is no lack of research on art. The psychology of aesthetics and the arts is the second oldest field in psychology, its founding attributed to Gustav Theodore Fechner in the late 1800s. Scientific research on experiences of the arts, therefore, has a long history, particularly visual arts and music. Scholarship in these areas has slowly, but steadily increased since Fechner, and the last decade has witnessed tremendous growth in the number of scientific studies conducted on these subjects. The field has also seen new developments such as powerful cognitive models of aesthetic experiences, rigorous methods that shed light on our bodily responses to viewing art, and novel applications of scientific findings to real world contexts such as museums.

Curiously, this type of work has generally eluded schools. We do have some knowledge about the relationship between visual arts participation and students’ performance in science; or between music listening and performance in math. However, even these relationships are tenuous. What we do not yet know is what experience with art, independent of other subjects, does for students (and everyone else). We do not have sufficient knowledge about what meaningful benefits art has beyond the fact that students find it fun to take a field trip to a museum or that art activities make students more interested in science.

Art for art’s sake is what we have been missing and what we should be going after.

When decisions are made to put less emphasis (or even abandon) art in schools it could be because decision makers have not seen the direct benefits that art provides. Doing well in math, science, and language arts have benefits that we are used to seeing. Doing well in these subjects helps with getting into college. It helps with graduating with a college degree. It helps with getting a job. Math-to-job is a more direct translation than art-to-math-to-job. But this is a mistranslation. The claim that art helps with other subjects, or that it will lead to a better job, was never “the promise.”

Rather, I believe that seeking evidence for the direct benefits of art should be the primary aim of my discipline. Some might find it paradoxical to speak about art for art’s sake and the benefits of art in the same breath. But we can agree to disagree. Showing evidence is particularly important in today’s climate of educational policy. If we think there is evidence to present, why not present evidence? As a scientist, I want to know what art does, independently of other subjects, and I am certain that it possesses its own intrinsic value. When we begin answering questions related to the benefits of art itself, using rigorous scientific methods, it will become more and more difficult to argue that art experiences for children should be secondary to other experiences.

Empirical research that some of my colleagues and I have conducted recently has shown a strong relationship between looking at artworks and being self-reflective and having the desire to learn. Other researchers have recently shown the cognitive benefits of art experiences for people with dementia; that looking at art really does move us emotionally; that art-making elevates mood; and that art educational experiences have a positive impact on attention. There is also evidence that art experiences foster creativity, imagination, and openness to new experiences. Self-reflection, desire to learn, cognitive benefits, elevated mood, openness to experience, and heightened attention seem like just what our students need to thrive—in schools, at work, and in their daily lives. And these are just a subset of what we are learning about the benefits of art.

A few years ago, when I was at a roundtable discussion on educational policy, I raised the concern of decreasing emphasis on art and aesthetics in schools. Not one person, of mostly policy makers, was sympathetic. I let it go. Later, near the end of the session, when we were talking about what people were doing after the meeting, I asked how many of them were members of museums or operas or concert halls. Most were or had been. The next question was why they liked going to museums or operas or similar experiences. Everyone took turns: it’s fun, I like to learn new things, it challenges me, it pushes my thinking, it gives me new perspectives, it helps me to feel creative, I learn about other cultures.

I then asked: Why it is that we are taking such experiences away from the people who should be getting them the most?

 

Select Bibliography

Dewey, J. 1934. Art as experience. New York: Perigee.

Eisner, E. W. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fechner, G. T. 1876. Vorschule der Ästhetik. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Greene, M. (2000). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinio, P. P. L., & Smith, J. K. (2014).  The Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Aesthetics and the Arts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1971. The psychology of art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Winner, E. 1982. Invented worlds: The psychology of the arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

 

Dr. Pablo P.L. Tinio is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University. He holds a Doctorate from the University of Vienna, Department of Psychology, an M.A. in Educational Psychology: Learning, Cognition, and Development from Rutgers University, and an M.A. in Behavioral Science from Kean University. His research is focused on the psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and the arts; arts and aesthetics in education; and learning and engagement in cultural institutions. Dr. Tinio is Editor of the APA journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. He is also Co-Editor of the Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Aesthetics and the Arts (2014). Dr. Tinio has been awarded the 2011 Frank X. Barron Award, and more recently, the 2014 Daniel E. Berlyne Award for Outstanding Early Career Achievement in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts by the American Psychological Association, Division 10.

 

Making a Dance Film: field notes on A Note for the Dancer (2015) – By Kathleen Kelley

On April 9th, 2015, the Department of Theatre and Dance premiered its very first dance film, A Note for the Dancer, in our annual Danceworks concert at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. I am the creator and instigator of this film, and have helped lead the department and myself into new creative territory as we together explored the nuanced nature of dance made for the camera.

In this essay, I will unearth some of the underlying processes that go into creating a dance film. Making this film required us all to move away from the typical dance performance and production structures that are made for the stage. We quite literally “zoomed in,” leaving the epic world of the large-scale live performance to focus on the tiniest details such as a flip of a hand, the swish of a skirt, or the way a pair of eyes can connect across the frame. In this way, we were challenged to discover new ways of making meaning on an entirely different scale.

Dance film—also known as dance for camera, video dance, or cinedance—is a genre that focuses on the potential of movement inside the camera frame. Dance film developed parallel to the development of film itself, with some first experimental filmmakers like Edison and the Lumière brothers using the dancer Loïe Fuller as their subject. The aesthetics of dance film are as varied as live dance; but in general, dance film embraces non-continuous editing choices, close-ups and other inventive angles to show movement, and interesting use of environment in relationship to movement. Dance film creates “choreography” by creating a trio between the camera movement, the camera frame, and the moving subject.

Simply put, making a dance film is quite different than making a dance, but both forms share a fascination with movement and its emotional and visual effects.

Why Make A Dance Film at Montclair State?

When I teach a dance technique class, I often ask my students to move towards the things that feel most uncomfortable. I want my students to understand their “edges” — the mindsets that hold them back or keep their movements “small” or “polite.” As an artist, I am always hungry for ways to drive myself into a zone that pushes past the fear of being good or bad, succeeding or failing. John Cage, in his “10 Rules for Students and Teachers” wrote: ‘There is no win and no fail. There is only make.” To get to that place of “making,” you have to take on new challenges. This imperative motivated me to develop a dance film for the Montclair State dance division.

My personal artistic agenda for this film was to test myself musically and logistically. My musical challenge—to work with the song, “A Note for a Dancer,” by jazz guitarist (and my husband) Greg Tuohey—was the most personally difficult. I do not like working with set music. I find it confining, and prefer to allow complex rhythmic structures to evolve out of the movement itself, which I support by musical or ambient scores created specifically for the dance or dance film. Since I find starting with set music so uncomfortable, I decided it would be a perfect challenge for myself. My second challenge was to take on some logistical restrictions and see what I could do with them. I wanted to work with primarily medium-close shots, all in the same location, with no outside environmental information, using only the elements of dancers, shadows, and the texture of the dresses to form the visual palette. This limitation forced me to hone in on the content of each shot, as there was less “clutter” inside each frame.

For our students, I wanted to challenge them to work in an entirely new way. In a traditional stage dance, especially the large-cast repertory we favor at Montclair, the performance of an individual is subsumed within the performance energy of the whole cast. Dancing as an ensemble makes a pointillist portrait, many dots of movement coming together to carve through space and create meaning through mass. Our dancers always impress me with their ability to come together as an ensemble and absorb themselves into a large group work. In this film, however, I wanted to take that large-scale performance energy and scale it down to their most simple gestures. Each individual dancer had to be, well, individual. Because I was capturing movements so tightly, each dancer had to find ways to let their personality and performativity shine through in the smallest of gestures.

For the Department of Theatre and Dance, I wanted to question the traditional concept of a production and performance. In production, we had to re-think costuming, scheduling, rehearsal planning, casting, and production support in new and untested ways. For example, we had to outfit seventeen women in dresses, accessories, and hairstyles that were individually unique, flattering, period-appropriate, and looked interesting filmed close-up and in black-and-white. This required a different structure of support than costuming a live dance. As a performance, I was excited that this film would have the ability be an ambassador for the Department. In opposition to the “one-and-done” nature of live performance, this film could live on after the Danceworks concert through film festivals, online video sites, and other media outlets.

Rehearsal Process

I began the development process of A Note for the Dancer by listening to the same-titled song repeatedly. I knew that two of Greg Tuohey’s primary influences were French impressionist composers, such as Erik Satie, and 1950s surf guitar groups like the Shadows. These influences make the work sound both nostalgic and spacious—characteristics I wanted to embody through the film. Both Satie and the Shadows are dreamers and romantics. They are more interested in the space and dynamic of the melody, rather than the underlying rhythmic structure in the music, and you can feel this structural influence in the song “A Note for the Dancer.”

I then started thinking about movement possibilities. What would this kind of structure look like in dance? I wanted something soft, with accelerating punches. I wanted to find and highlight movements that had release inside of them, as well as turns that accelerate and decelerate. I wanted to find movements that I could layer, delay and stutter in the editing process.

Working with the dancers, I created a structure for the film that included a “beginning”, “middle”, and “end.” We made short dance phrases and duets together. I brought in one or two movement concepts, but most of the phrases were developed in collaboration with the dancers. I often like to have dancers bring some authority and individuality to the table. I had a diverse group of 17 dancers, and I wanted to highlight what makes each of them special. This can be easier when they perform their own movement rather than trying to look like me.

In rehearsals, I always had an eye to the camera, asking questions such as: “How do I frame each movement? What are some places that will be interesting to focus on? Where is this going?” The structure I created in the rehearsal process was fairly loose, leaving space for the camera to make meaning. This led to some funny moments in rehearsal when the dancers wouldn’t know what was next or how they would get from one side of the stage to the other. They would ask, “So where do I go from here?” but I could only laugh and say, “You will just disappear when I edit! Don’t worry!” Through the rehearsal process, we made a sketch of a dance that was missing transitions, but had enough content to be compelling on camera.

To address the challenge of performing on the small scale, I encouraged the students to create their own characters for the film. We spent several rehearsals working on the nuance necessary to be filmed close up, exercises to develop directness and performativity in their faces. One day, I brought in a projector, letting them watch as I filmed dancers trying on different facial expressions and emotional intents. I asked students to “dance” with their eyes, shoulders, fingers, toes, chins, and smiles—very different than a big full-bodied approach. Seeing themselves directly was useful for the students because it gave them a frame of reference on how we needed to work.

While all of this was developing in rehearsals, I was working separately with our costume designer Derek Robertson, a Production Design major. He is supremely talented, took my vague ideas of “nostalgia” and “romance,” and ran with them. He decided to focus the costumes into 1950s romantic silhouettes that gave the women a sense of both glamour and nostalgia. He identified costumes based on the patterns they would create in black-and-white, and was able to highlight each dancer so each one looks unique.

Filming Process

We shot the film over a February weekend, working from morning until night (and through a snowstorm) to capture 117 shots and two hours of material that would eventually be distilled into the 7-minute film. We shot out of order, using a simple soundstage setup and three-point lighting. I shot in color, to make sure that my exposure and color balance were correct, but then applied a black-and-white effect afterwards.

To prepare for filming, I developed a list of 65 shots I desired. I then rearranged the shots, grouping them together based on the setup of the lights and space as well as the dancers needed for each shot. While filming, we worked through each shot multiple times, allowing for performances and camera angles to develop into more complex relationships through each take.

Each shoot was supported by Derek Robertson and an assistant, who took pains to ensure that each woman looked gorgeous, period-specific, camera-ready, and, most importantly, individual. It took over two hours each shooting day to get all of the dancers in hair and makeup, but it was worth it when we saw the performers transform on the lighted set.

I was nervous that filming would feel disjointed for the dancers since we would be shooting out of order and in short shots. Such interruptions can make it difficult to stay physically warmed-up and focused. I was impressed with the professionalism each performer brought to the set. They were utterly engaged and took on the challenge at hand beautifully. They understood that it was their job to perform from the moment they walked onto the set, even without music or when having to repeat movements several times.

The filming was supported by our Stage Manager Jennifer Motta, two Assistant Stage Management students, and two freshmen Dance Majors who served as rehearsal assistants. Through their consummate professionalism, we were able to move through the shots quickly, and Jennifer was able to keep seventeen cast members and myself organized, fed, on time, and engaged throughout the whirlwind filming process.

Editing Process

Once I had the footage, the most difficult part began: the editing process. This is often where most of the “choreography” of a dance film actually occurs. Because of the nature of film, there are so many options when crafting movement through space and time. Even though I had made a thorough sketch of the order of the dance, I knew that I would have to reimagine some things once confronted with the actual product.

Looking at the footage, there were a few surprises for me. The first was the sheer amount of movement that I had captured. I had packed the field quite full in an attempt to have plenty of choices, which meant that there were more “moves” than space available in the music. Therefore, each dance phrase of 10-15 movements had to be distilled to 1-3 movements to fit into the rhythm of the music. The second surprise was that some of the “throwaway” shots that I had thought would be less interesting became some of the most important. For example, a “dream sequence” dolly shot that I developed on a whim became one of the central transitions in the film.

The editing process for A Note for the Dancer was tedious but ultimately rewarding. When I edited, I was ruthless. I cut any part that wasn’t worth keeping, even if it felt important at the time of shooting. I focused on what I actually had, letting the footage dictate where the film progressed. This ruthlessness distilled the film into something unique by crystallizing focus upon some of its most magical moments–the beauty of a simple gesture or a repeating rhythm. It is this inherent ability to focus on the subtlety of movement that draws me to film in the first place. Film clarifies so that you can focus on what truly matters.

A Note for the Dancer

Maya Deren, a leader in early experimental dance film, writes about the ways film can be used as metaphor in her 1978 essay “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality.” She argues that because film captures reality (i.e., what is actually in front of you), it is one of the only art forms that can use reality itself to create metaphor. For example, if you slow down reality, you can create a visual metaphor for suspended time. If you repeat footage over and over again, you can create a metaphor for a loop that cannot be escaped. This quality draws me to dance film: the ability to use movement to create metaphors and emotions. Film allows the tiniest gesture to become epic, or the most basic movement, like floor roll, to carry a deeper meaning.

It is my hope that these metaphors come forth in A Note for the Dancer, and that the film exemplifies an entirely new way of imagining movement possibilities for our students and department. I am still very enmeshed in the film, having so recently completed and shown it publicly, so it is still impossible for me at this immediate moment to put forth an objective analysis of its content.

I do know, however that two of the important challenges I set were met. I pushed myself, as an artist, into new, uncomfortable spaces; and the MSU student dancers in the piece embodied a totally new way of performing with maturity and glamour.

To watch A Note for the Dancer, go here.

— Kathleen Kelley is a choreographer, filmmaker, and Assistant Professor of Dance and Technology at Montclair State University. Originally from North Carolina, she received her BFA from the University of NC-Greensboro and her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her choreography has been shown at venues across New York, including the Center for Performance Research, the Tank NYC, the John Ryan Theater, Triskelion Arts, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Chez Bushwick, Movement Research, and Studio A.I.R, and her most recent video work “Portlet” was featured in the Rutger’s Institute for Women and Art’s MTV: Momentum Technology Videos Film Festival. www.kathleenkelleydance.com

 

Looking Back to Move Forward: Staging Antony Tudor’s Continuo (1971) – by Elizabeth McPherson

Ribbon step-Continuo In the Fall of 2014, for the Dance Program here at Montclair State University, I staged Antony Tudor’s Continuo (1971), from the Labanotation score (a written form for documenting dance). The staging of Continuo was a meaningful experience for me on many levels. It connected my past, in terms of research and dance training, to my current students, who will be carrying dance into the future. It reconnected with my ballet background, even though I spend more time in the world of modern dancers today. And it was an opportunity to work closely with Lynne Grossman (a fellow Montclair State faculty member who served as rehearsal director) and our wonderful cast of student dancers.

Antony Tudor (1908-1987) is considered to be one of the choreographic geniuses of the 20th century. Born in England, he did not start studying dance until his teen years, eventually finding his way to Marie Rambert’s school in London and joining her company, The Ballet Club, in 1929. It was here that he choreographed two of his most enduring and revered works, Jardin aux Lilas (1936) and Dark Elegies (1937). The New York City-based Ballet Theatre, later called American Ballet Theatre, contracted Tudor to set three ballets for their 1939 season. He set sail for the USA a few weeks after Britain entered World War II, in one of the last civilian boats allowed to cross the Atlantic in normal passenger service. This began his long association with American Ballet Theatre. Tudor also spent many years teaching at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and The Juilliard School.

Often called the master of the psychological ballet, his style also extends beyond the psychological, which one can see in the more abstract Continuo. Tudor created his own steps, and ways of doing steps, that fall within the parameters of ballet but that do not quite precisely follow the traditional ballet lexicon. He was also known for not giving preparations for turns, lifts, and jumps, so that they seem to come from nowhere, creating fluid phrasing. His choreography is very difficult, but should look effortless.

Antony Tudor has fascinated me since my years as a student at Juilliard. He had been a colleague and/or teacher of many of my teachers there, including Alfredo Corvino, Laura Glenn, Linda Kent, Daniel Lewis, and Risa Steinberg. He died during my first year, and was often spoken about with great reverence and awe. As I gave thought to what I might want to stage at Montclair State for the Fall 2014 repertory season, my mind kept returning to Continuo. Originally choreographed for students at Juilliard, I first saw it performed by ABT’s Studio Company in 2008 at the 100th anniversary celebration of Tudor’s birth. Before the dance began that afternoon, I did not have high expectations; I thought it might be trite, given the music of Pachelbel’s overplayed Canon in D. Much to my delight, however, it was sheer poetry from beginning to end, as if the music had been composed for this dance alone.

I suggested Continuo as possible repertory to other Montclair State faculty, and all were intrigued but understandably concerned because the dance is onpointe, and we had never before done a pointe ballet at Montclair State. We had never even seen our students on pointe. I asked Lynne Grossman if she would help me with rehearsals as she had much experience dancing professionally on pointe. To begin with, we created a list of female Montclair State dancers whom we thought would be most likely to have strong enough pointe work, and sent an email to them over the summer, suggesting that they practice their pointe work if they would be interested in auditioning for the piece in September. The dance calls for a cast of three women and three men, and we were hoping to double cast.

September rolled around, and it was time to audition. Lynne and I ran the auditions during two of the slots for ballet classes, and students who wished to audition came to one of those two classes. Lynne and I began with a regular ballet barre to warm the students up and then asked the women to put on pointe shoes. We taught excerpts from the ballet, and began to see who would be most capable, best with partnering, and best able to embody the style and convey the expression of the dance. After the audition, Lynne and I had many lengthy discussions. We looked at heights of dancers and which men and women might work best together. There were a couple of issues with academic classes conflicting with rehearsals. We ended up with two full casts and three understudies (two women and one man), the cast members ranging from freshmen to seniors. They were all enthusiastic and dedicated throughout the process, remembering the details of choreography and timing with the precision of professional dancers. We generally only had one two-hour rehearsal a week, so quick learning and remembering was essential.

At the first rehearsal, I distributed an article on Antony Tudor that I wrote and published several years ago. [“Antony Tudor: Pillar of Twentieth Century Ballet.” Dance Teacher Magazine, August 2007: 105-106.] I wanted the students to begin by understanding the context of his career in the framework of dance history. I used primarily the Labanotation score to teach the dance, building upon the phrases that were taught at the audition and moving forward from there. Particularly to check spacing and partnering, I also used a video provided by the Dance Notation Bureau of Joffrey II performing Continuo as staged from the Labanotation score. There were occasional spots where the arms, for instance, were performed and documented differently in the video than in the notation. In these cases, I went with the notation score because that is the primary source used when staging a dance from Labanotation. In addition, this notation score did not have standard facing “pins,” which indicate the direction the dancer should be facing after a turn. With the numerous turns and turning lifts, I used the video to be sure of the spatial direction. Lynne and I counted at first, instead of using the music, slowly working up the dancers’ speed and confidence and then adding the music. MSU Dance faculty member Christian Von Howard assisted us with some of the partnering. Before long, the dance was complete, however, with time being short, the dancers were only able to run the full piece a couple of times before the date arrived for the coaches from the Tudor Trust to attend rehearsal.

The Tudor Trust owns the rights to all of Antony Tudor’s ballets. Because I staged the dance through Labanotation, our contract was with the Dance Notation Bureau in cooperation with the Tudor Trust. Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner were designated as our coaches by the director of the trust, Sally Bliss. They had both danced with American Ballet Theatre for many years, rising to the ranks of Principal and Soloist respectively, and they both knew and worked with Tudor. They also happen to be married! Our students, Lynne, and I had a wonderful learning experience with Amanda and John. They were relaxed and easygoing, but exacting. The version they knew differed slightly from the older, notated version, and so we worked together to decide what would be best for our students in the two extended rehearsals we had with them. Amanda and John were excited to see some of the characteristically “Tudor” steps that had gradually turned into more standard ballet steps through the years. They reminisced, told stories about Mr. Tudor, gave visual images, and worked on some of the partnering steps the students had not quite mastered. They nurtured the dancers to breathe life into the dance. A dance truly lives through performance, and Lynne and I began to see our dancers invest themselves fully into the lyric nature of the dance so that it became a living force, and not just steps strung together.

Montclair State faculty member Neil Baldwin interviewed Amanda and John on video one afternoon after rehearsal was over, and we were fortunate to hear more about their careers and their work with Antony Tudor. [*See below for link to the video.] He was a tough director, often pushing dancers to deep places emotionally, and not in a kind or gentle manner. Amanda and John indicated that they work to get the same depth from the dancers they coach and teach, but without using the harsher methods.

Our student costumer, Samantha LaScala, began attending rehearsals and measuring students. I saw a mock-up of the costumes a few weeks before the performance. The women’s costumes were made of blue chiffon with a pink skirt underneath, and the sleeves have a fluttery quality. They are based upon the original design by Lynn Hoffman, approved by Tudor.  A drawing of the dress along with fabric swatches had been included with the Labanotation score. Under Samantha’s direction, the dresses turned out beautifully. I talked with a friend of mine, Ani Udovicki, who had danced the ballet as a student at Juilliard, coached by Tudor, and she remembered that he told the dancers they should be “like angels.” The fluttery sleeves made much more sense to me in this anecdotal context, because the manner in which they were attached down the back of the dress looked a little like an abstract version of wings. The men wore white, peasant-like shirts with gray tights and matching gray ballet slippers. Our faculty lighting designer, David O. Smith, also attended rehearsals, working with the lighting information given in the Labanotation score.

In the tension of the final tech rehearsals, we could see that the dancers were understandably nervous; however, we could also see that they were dancing from the heart, and that the dance was there – the choreography was clear to see. As the director, it was a very emotional process for me to let the dance go, because in the end, it was the dancers up on the stage — not me. As the dancers moved into the regular run of performances (November 19-23, 2014), Lynne and I made sure that they ran the dance in the studio just before performing it. This allowed them to get in sync with their partners, and to ease into the fluid quality. Continuo was the opening piece of the night, so the first couple was the first on stage for the whole concert, responsible for setting the mood and general impression. A high-pressure task indeed!

Our students gave strong performances, full of integrity and meaning. There are, of course, nuances that Lynne and I plan to work on for the spring performances (Danceworks, April 8-12, 2015); however, it is a fact of life that dancers are always seeking a perfection that is never fully achievable. The beauty comes in pursuit of that excellence – being the best one can be in a given moment, live, on stage, with no re-takes. And the “best one can be” comes from repetition — in the studio, day after day, always working. Through that work and, ultimately, performance, our dancers will carry Antony Tudor’s valuable legacy forward.

Matt and Emma Continuo 3

Elizabeth McPherson is an associate professor and coordinator of the BA in Dance at Montclair State University. She received her BFA from Juilliard, followed by an MA from The City College of New York, and a PhD from New York University. The author of The Bennington School of the Dance: A History in Writings and Interviews and The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900-1995, she has also written articles and reviews for Ballet Review, Dance Teacher Magazine, Attitude: The Dancers’ Magazine and The Journal of Dance Education. She is the Executive Editor of the new journal Dance Education in Practice.

The focus of Dr. McPherson’s research is teaching and learning in dance education with an emphasis on history. She has particular expertise in oral interviews, which make up significant portions of both of her books. Dr. McPherson has staged numerous 20th century dance works from Labanotation and other sources. Recent projects include Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown and excerpts from Anna Sokolow’s Scenes from the Music of Charles Ives. She is a board member of the Martha Hill Dance Fund and on the professional advisory committee of the Dance Notation Bureau. Performance credits include: Ernesta Corvino’s Dance Circle Company, Avodah Dance Ensemble, and the Louis Johnson Dance Theatre.

[*Follow the link to see and hear Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner discuss Antony Tudor and the choreographic process: Continuo.]

[Photographs of Montclair State University students performing Continuo by Robert M. Cooper.]

 

A Director’s Wilderness – My Journey Through ‘Threepenny Opera’ – By Mark Hardy

[Mark Hardy is an Associate Professor at Montclair State University and teaches in the Musical Theatre BFA program in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Mark came to teaching after a long career as a professional actor on and off Broadway and in regional theatre. He continues to act and direct professionally. The Creative Research Center asked Mark to take over our “Guest Essay” column this month and recount his creative journey while in the throes of  preparing to direct the production of the Brecht/Weill The Threepenny Opera which ran at Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University to great acclaim from November 13-16, 2014.]

Colleagues have accused me of a proclivity for working on complex pieces with inherent difficulties, known in the field as “problem plays.” And I seem particularly to enjoy working on these with students, a prospect that sensible teacher/directors would avoid. Last year, I chose Take Flight, an unresolved and ambitious musical by Richard Maltby, David Shire, and John Weidman that interweaves the stories of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart in non-linear form. In recent years, I’ve also answered the call with the perennially-thorny Taming of the Shrew; the still-controversial and problematic Carousel with a mixed cast of professionals and students; Joe Orton’s stylistically diabolical Loot; the sprawling musical Titanic — on a modest budget; and the Lippa Wild Party with its confounding mixture of schizophrenic score and weak dramatic action. There’s something irresistible in wrestling with tough material in collaboration with student actors, designers, and stage managers. It asks the best of all of us in the rehearsal room every single day. It presents young designers with a host of creative questions.

All of art “is a messy job of work” in the making, as I wrote in an artist’s manifesto in graduate school years ago. I still find beauty in the challenge, in the mess. I like hard work. I like artistic struggles.

The Threepenny Opera is a notoriously challenging piece that I’ve been drawn to for years, although I’d never had the chance to work on it until I suggested we put it on our 2014/2015 season at Montclair State University. It is a polarizing musical. Nearly a year ago, I mentioned I’d be doing it to a Broadway conductor friend who replied, “Good luck with that – I’ve never seen it work.” A very experienced professional actor friend said, “Really? With undergraduates?” Apart from the song “Mack The Knife,” not one moment from Threepenny has been absorbed by popular culture. People seem to want to keep it at arm’s length. Theatre artists tend to admire it – even if some say they’re not sure they like it – and certainly recognize its importance in theatre history as a groundbreaking, game-changing work. But most producers avoid it like a ticket-selling plague.

And most audiences, as with Sondheim’s brilliant A Little Night Music (another favorite of mine), tend to run in the other direction. Threepenny is didactic. It testifies. It aims to startle, engage, challenge, mock, unsettle, even attack. It commingles outrage and farce. This is not at all what Americans have been taught to want or like in musicals. We’ve been coached to want the package pretty and the story resolved. We’ll take irony, but we like it better with puppets. We want our catharsis clear, complete with a lesson that we can walk away from feeling contentment and resolution. Yet Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill set out to rattle such conventions as they persisted nearly 100 years ago. Isn’t it reassuring that their funny, frightening, intentionally misshapen artistic lovechild remains so subversive and uncomfortable? You have to admire its persistence.

It helps to like what you direct — and I like Threepenny’s features, like one of those unforgettably ugly/beautiful faces you see in the films of Almodovar and John Waters. The score is gorgeous and disturbing by turns, the forms are recognizable enough to (almost) allow us some comfort before knocking us off balance, and the characters and action are built to foil any hope of predictability. Words like “pleasant” and “lovely” have no home here. It’s mean and base and odd and true. Its young, brash creators set out to shake us out of complacency, to provoke us to sit forward in our seats. There’s a time to feel comforted and refreshed in the theatre and there’s a time to feel… well, not.

Long before facing the extreme challenges of performance style with an inexperienced cast, my job was to form an overall production concept and refine it with student designers. My private work began well over a year ahead, and my work with the designers began in earnest seven months before rehearsals started. I followed my usual way of beginning. After letting the material wash over me for a time, I focused upon what I wanted to avoid in this production. I identified the show’s traps and what had not worked well in previous productions. I’m tired of an “Aren’t we so edgy?” approach to musicals like Cabaret, both versions of The Wild Party, Rent, Urinetown, Sweeney Todd, Spring Awakening, etc. (none of which might exist without Threepenny’s shoulders to stand upon). The point is the action of the play, not a self-reflective attitude or self-conscious trappings. Therefore, I wanted any choices we made to come from the script and score rather than from any sensational manipulation tactics.

Two key qualities were very clear from the start: the material of Threepenny sounds very fresh, as if it might just have been written; and the piece cannot breathe without humor. Research led me to Nadine Gordimer’s Foreword to a newly-published edition of the play in which she speaks passionately about the show’s universality and timelessness, not least because the social ills it directly addresses have only intensified since its creation. Gordimer convinced me that especially for us, in a university setting, and with an audience almost entirely new to this work, the show needed to be set precisely now. Nothing important in the piece roots it to Edwardian London. Certainly the original Berlin production did not adhere to period details in any way. Nor did the very successful off-Broadway production in 1954, which launched the work to an American audience.

The fact is that Threepenny is a reworking of a 1728 musical phenomenon called The Beggar’s Opera, an outrageous spoof of the genre’s conventions directly satirizing the society and government of its day. The problem with period detail in costume, prop, and set design is that it can have the opposite effect of leading people to identify with the action on stage; rather, it can lead them to think, “How very different things were then!” It can become too easy for an audience to separate from what’s on stage when the coats and cups and curtains they see are exotic. The point of The Threepenny Opera is that the audience recognize what they see as an expression of what is around them in the culture, even when much of it is unpleasant. I have come to question what I call museum productions of period plays – productions that set historical accuracy above action. Young audiences, in particular, are often rightfully bored by these shows, because they instinctively understand the whole point of theatre is to see things happen, not to watch mere behavior or period accuracy. Two important questions to ask when considering moving the period of a theatrical work are: “Will it hurt the work?” and “What will it do for the work?” In our environment, I hoped it would lead to connection. As for the setting in London, I saw no reason to change this. Location is embedded in the text of scenes and songs that I would not be comfortable rewriting (and legally can’t); and there is a particular irony in this most uncivilized story taking place in what many consider the most civilized city in the world. I did choose, however, to dispense with English accents in the service of universality. As with Shakespeare, the setting is an idea with particular, poetic meaning, but is not a determinate of acting choices. German-born Lotte Lenya, the greatest interpreter of this material, certainly never bothered with an English accent. Imagine if we had to suffer through mandatory Greek accents in Oedipus and Russian accents in The Seagull. I’d be the first to run screaming from the theatre.

The challenge I set before us as a design team is what I called “re-Brechting”: a way of pursuing Brecht’s goals within a contemporary theatre dialectic. Brecht – and Weill, as well as Brecht’s grievously-overlooked collaborator, Elizabeth Hauptmann – used specific techniques that sought to rattle and rally the audience. They wanted to undermine the audience’s expectation of going to a musical, replacing received convention with a new kind of theatre that would engage the audience in social change, rather than palliate through mere emotional responses. They wanted the audience to think and take action in the world outside the theatre. Brecht’s techniques and philosophies have hugely influenced modern theatre, even very commercial musical works like A Chorus Line, The Fantasticks, and Les Miserables. With this awareness in mind, the Brechtian hallmarks that I brought to design meetings were: frequent direct address to the audience, often in confrontational ways; the use of signs to announce scenes and songs, creating stops in the action for reflection; the clear separation of songs from the action of scenes, breaking down the pretense that singing is speaking; constant reminders that this is a performance, preventing the audience from losing itself in the emotion of scenes and instead encouraging thought; a recurring subversion of traditional musical and script form as a way of keeping the audience in a state of awareness and surprise (even to the point of uncomfortably inconclusive endings to songs and scenes at times); unabashed delivery of clear moral messages; the complete lack of a hero or heroine — instead, in fact, an entire cast of antagonists; and a stark theatricality directly related to message rather than to a pleasing aesthetic.

Our challenge was complicated by the additional cultural reality that Brecht’s signatures – rudimentary, exposed lighting; simple, unrefined scenic elements and props; matter-of-fact, workaday costumes; a cabaret environment of barest necessities – have become tropes in theatre production. What was startlingly bold and daring in 1928 looks quaint to a contemporary audience. Riffing on the grandeur of opera production, we settled on a large urban ruin with many levels that reminded the audience that they were looking at a set in a theatre. We not only revealed the backstage space surrounding the set, we lit it and removed the usual masking that insulates the audience from backstage workings. As a way of unsettling the space, we contrasted the elegance of the Kasser Theatre with a distressed concrete environment that was an intentionally vague location. It could be an abandoned interior or exterior one might find in any city in the world, save for its London-specific graffiti. We used the same guiding idea to shape the costume design: modern clothing that was at once theatrical and familiar, which told the audience that these were characters constructed to make a point, not personalities to get lost in. We kept the musicians in the pit in a high position, just at the level of the audience seats rather than lowered out of sight, so that spectators would see the action somewhat through the musicians, through the score. We lit the musicians to include them in the picture, another reminder that this was a self-aware performance. I also asked for a bridge between the stage and the theatre house: a wide platform that stepped down gradually from the edge of the stage to the house floor to be used in moments of particular confrontation between actors and audience.

With the cast, the primary challenge was performance style. While the aesthetic demanded a fresh take to power the intent of the piece, the demands upon actors in The Threepenny Opera have remained constant for over 100 years. The universal ideal is that all actors serve the plays they’re in rather than themselves. But here’s a play that utterly falls apart if the cast is not entirely unified in a specific style of performance, a style foreign to young actors and, indeed, even a struggle for professionals who approach this material. The actors must use muscular vocal production in speech and song that sacrifices the voice to the word at all times; erase the standard modern musical theatre pretense that the shift from speech to song is natural and subtle; step in and out of the action by breaking the fourth wall (the imaginary boundary between actor and audience) often and in different ways, including completely stepping out of character at times; employ a large, archetypal size in performance that remains human rather than caricature (harder than it sounds for a group that has grown up with filmic naturalism); maintain the identity of actor while portraying character as a way to remain somewhat removed from character (what Brecht called the “distancing effect”). This last demand flies in the face of mainstream modern acting – which insists on immersion into character, into fooling the audience that we actually are who we say we are – and proved the most difficult of all because it contradicts what students learn in most acting classes. The identity of artist as activist in the moment of performance is not a role most of our students have ever considered, let alone experienced.

We were all duly humbled before these demands, and I must admit that the actors were utterly lost for the first weeks of rehearsal. So many wanted a way a way to “get it right” immediately, as if I could offer quick answers to problems that any actor would struggle with mightily. It is sometimes a trait of this wonderful young generation that they want a speedy road to approval or success, a magic bullet. But there are no shortcuts in art. I took great pains to remind them of this. We talked often about struggle and the power of experimentation. I admitted that all of us in the room were struggling, and that this might in fact be very helpful in a piece that is largely about struggle. We made connections between issues and characters in the play and what was going on around us in the world. I urged patience, another trait many young people today have not been encouraged to develop. I tried to help them understand that what we were after was their interpretation of this play, their message, as well as Brecht and Weill’s — or mine. We talked about the power of a personal stake in their work vs. generic actor “energy.” We discussed the importance of risk and of performance costing the actor something. There were many uncomfortable nights and a lot of frustration, even among the advanced actors, many of whom said things like, “I’ve never worked on something this hard before” and “I understand it intellectually, but not how to do it.” Yet slowly, rather late in the rehearsal process, moments began to land. Actors began to breathe into their roles and truly play the action. They began to have fun inside the material. And something like an authentic point of view emerged.

Getting into the theatre for technical rehearsals – where everything comes together (or not!) – is a fragile and monumental event in every production, large or small. Goodhearted colleagues like to say to panicking directors, “Oh, it will come together – it always does!” No sane director will ever believe this. A massive, multi-level set, scores of costumes and props, a lot of tricky lighting cues, twenty-six young and green actors, a pit full of student musicians playing a Weill score, a student crew running the whole works, and a show that has never been on the list of “perfect” musicals (those that seem bulletproof no matter what) do not feel by any stretch of the imagination like “it’s going to be okay.” But tech time is magical for the actors and crew, because at last they see what everyone has been describing for months, and, in a rush, things make sense. The students heroically process all kinds of new information, making myriad adjustments. I can help them, of course, but they have to galvanize this monster through an act of will and trust.

This is what we theatre people mean when we talk about the “high” of our world. It’s not the applause, the rush at the end of the night when the audience says, “I love you!” That’s too easy, but that’s what it seems to be from the outside. We just let civilians think that, because this other thing – like a drug — is too hard to describe. Sondheim said it best through a lyric he gave Georges Seurat in the masterful Sunday in the Park with George: “Look I made hat. Where there never was a hat.” In the theatre it’s “hat-by-mob.” This takes guts and a healthy dose of essential idealism. It’s nerve-wracking at times and it feels like danger. It can also be unspeakably fun as discoveries are made. And fun is central to art. I often remind my students in classes and rehearsals that for hundreds of years until the mid-20th century, the word “play” was used instead of “act” much more than it is today. We still use it a bit: “I’m playing a role” or “I want to play Hamlet.” But we never hear “What are you playing tonight?” or “What’s playing in the Kasser next season?” any more. We have a lot of definitions for “acting” but we don’t talk of “playing” as the same thing. We should. I recall hearing an NPR interview a few years ago in which a sociologist stated that pornography had become so widespread because most people in first and second world cultures never encounter wilderness; he saw the hunger for wilderness as the need many were trying to satisfy so unsuccessfully in pornography. If only we could get them to engage with the wilderness of art. Of course, to do this, we’d have to make sure we had wild art to offer.

People ask me what my next project is. I can honestly say that now I want to do The Music Man or Gypsy or You Can’t Take It With You, or some such bulletproof work that will not keep me up into the wee hours or find me re-staging what I did in yesterday’s rehearsal. I will do them somewhere, probably not at MSU, and I will play and delve and love it. But since we have not announced our Theatre and Dance season for the coming academic year, I’m not going to be the mole who gives you the title I’m already wrestling with. It’s a small show that enjoyed a modest Broadway run some time ago. It’s imperfect and beautiful, with a rather high style that will confound students at first. It will be a design puzzle and will frustrate the actors. The singing is hard.

I can’t wait to see what we do with it.

Mark Hardy – December 11, 2014.

 

Harry W. Haines on The Vietnam War Forty Years Later – W.D. Ehrhart on Today’s Unlearned Lessons

[Harry W. Haines is a Professor in the School of Communication & Media at Montclair State University. He was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey and was drafted in 1969, one day after he completed his last requirement for his bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. After his military service, he worked as a reporter and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in Communication at the University of Utah. For twenty years, he taught a very popular course on the Vietnam War, and he has written critical analyses of films, television series, memorials, art works, etc., that help give meaning to the American experience in Vietnam. He is writing a memoir about his experience as a gay anti-war draftee in Vietnam during 1970-1971.  Here, he explains the impetus for the memoir.]

Two self-disclosures revealed Mitt Romney’s sense of self in the last presidential campaign. The infamous “47%” recording, made by a bartender at a fund raising event, clarified Romney’s sense of social class privilege and his apparent contempt for the American middle-class, struggling under the economic policies imposed on them by his social class since the Reagan Administration. The other self-disclosure failed to get the extensive media play that the surreptitious video received, but it should have. At least, many of my fellow Vietnam vets agree with me that it should have. It was Romney’s bizarre statement that he “longed” to go to Vietnam as a young man but, for some reason, was compelled instead to go to Paris on his Mormon Mission.

As a follow-up, his wife added a few days later that missionary work is very much like military experience, because both assignments offer young men an opportunity to find themselves, to become mature adults. “Unless they get sent home in a body bag,” my Army buddy Thomas Jeffrey Roberts, deceased, would have said. Cue the sniggers of aging vets.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, it’s still weird being a Vietnam War veteran in this country. To respond to the insulting statements by Romney and his wife, even if a veterans group or, as in my case, a mouthy academic with a chip on his shoulder, could find a media outlet that might regard a response as newsworthy, would have risked the label of whiney old fart, still crazy after all these years. It’s over. Let it go. We have a new cohort of vets to worry about. And a sizable percentage of young Americans now believe that the sacrifices we made in Vietnam were actually worth it, even necessary. “How many times do we have to say ‘Welcome Home’ to you guys before you shut up?”

In this postmodern revisionist environment, in which we are often thanked for what we did in Vietnam, the public memory of our actual lived experience begins to lose political currency. I have lost track of the number of times that I have been told, sometimes by well-meaning young vets of the current conflagrations, some of the most righteous men and women I have met in my life, that the Vietnam War was winnable, that we were robbed of victory by craven politicians, that we were betrayed by the same Congress that betrayed the South Vietnamese army, that civilian anti-war activists harassed us at airports and spat upon our uniforms as we returned to The World. And slowly the Vietnam War as a cautionary tale of hubris, corruption, and imperialist aggression begins to evaporate like one of those circular fade-outs in an old silent movie, replaced by myth.

I fear that the public memory of the Vietnam War has been hijacked to rationalize a new phase of aggression that began with our action in Kuwait and was heightened by the invasion of Iraq, the event that destabilized much of the so-called Middle East and determined that another generation (actually, a very small percentage of another generation) would have long-term deployments and redeployments in wars that might easily go on for decades. And, unlike the Vietnam War era, the enemy may actually turn up on our doorstep. Curiously, the people who got us immersed continue to be interviewed on our television receivers as if they retained credibility. We don’t live in times that are simply dangerous; we live in times that are seemingly absurd.

When the Iraq invasion began, I was teaching at a fine liberal arts institution that attracted some of the brightest students in the country, many of them from families that would not have been offended by Romney’s “47%” gaff. In an attempt to silence what was then a very large anti-war movement, the slogan “Support Our Troops” was employed by supporters of the invasion, inferring that opposition to the invasion equaled denigration of our soldiers, harkening back to the supposed and utterly mythological belief that Vietnam vets were spat upon as we disembarked from the Freedom Birds. I happened to get caught up in an exchange of letters in the campus newspaper with a few male students, all of them hawks. Some of them visited me in my office. I suggested to a couple of them that they might support the troops by actually joining them. “No, sir,” one told me, “We can’t do that. We’re down for law school next year.” I immediately thought of this exchange when I first read that Mitt Romney had “longed” to join us in Vietnam and that other commitments prevented him from making the flight.

And so, admittedly, my decision to embark upon the writing of a Vietnam War memoir originates in the big chip that still rests on my shoulder, increased in weight by the current set of dangerous circumstances, brought about by privileged members of my generation who may have “longed” to join in our great adventure in Southeast Asia, but who were noticeably absent from the roll call. I have no delusions that my little tale will turn the tide against the revisionist onslaught against the actual experience and the lived politics of the Vietnam War, but I am certain that it will help shed some light on two aspects of the war that belong in the record.

First, the gay American soldier’s experience in Vietnam is practically absent from the war literature. I happily discovered that U.S. forces were simply loaded with gay guys, so my own story is hardly definitive. But it is a gay story, let me tell you! During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, I provided friends with amusing anecdotes about escapades from Nha Trang to Saigon. Quite honestly, I came out of the closet while a young man in a combat zone. In fact, I insisted on declaring my sexual orientation in Vietnam, because the Army had made me an honorary heterosexual just in order to draft me. At my induction physical, I checked off “homosexual tendencies” only because “homosexual orientation” wasn’t on the questionnaire. Warm bodies were needed in 1969, and I was drafted on the spot. And, to my delight, sexuality merged with politics in the war zone.

Second, by the time I arrived in Vietnam in 1970, command had broken down in several areas, not only where we REMFs* were located, but out in the field, where it really counted. For us, the breakdown meant the refusal of orders and the development of gangs in uncounted units, often along the lines that Oliver Stone accurately portrayed in Platoon. Recall the hooch where Wilhem Defoe teaches Charlie Sheen how to smoke dope using a rifle, the quintessential cinematic portrayal of a “shotgun hit.” That hooch was my address in Vietnam. There were other addresses, many of them quite unfriendly and potentially dangerous. I feared many of my fellow soldiers more than I feared the Vietnamese, even though we had much to fear from the locals as the war cascaded to victory for Hanoi.

The breakdown in command accompanied an amorphous anti-war movement among the troops that threatened battle-readiness not just in Vietnam, but throughout the world, including West Germany. The evidence is clear that Nixon’s decision to start pulling out U.S. troops was based, in part, on the conclusion that we could no longer be relied upon to follow orders. This is a major aspect of our country’s history in the Vietnam War, and it formed the context of my lived experience there. I want to give insight into this collective, oppositional consciousness that helped determine the outcome of the war.  At the age of 70, I want to bear witness to it.

[*The acronym REMF stands for “Rear Echelon Mother Fucker,” the term used derisively, and quite understandably, by combat soldiers to label the fortunate sons, including Haines, posted to relatively safe non-combat medical and support units.]

* * * * *

W.D. Ehrhart’s work is among the most important literature shaped by the American experience of the Vietnam War and the post-war struggles of his generation. He is a Marine combat vet whose early poetry appeared in the legendary collection, Winning Hearts and Minds. Although he never intended to be labeled a “Vietnam War writer,” critics—and his fellow veterans—regard him as a major voice in the ongoing attempt to make sense of what the Vietnamese call the American War. He is the author of several collections of poetry and of three memoirs, titled Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir, Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War, and Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America. His many essays focus on contemporary political and social issues. The recently published collection of critical essays, titled The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W.D. Ehrhart, edited by Jean-Jacques Mal, is available from McFarland & Company. Ehrhart teaches English and history at the Haverford School and lives in suburban Philadelphia. His work is widely used throughout the world in university courses about the war’s history and its aftermath. – H.H.]

Where the Dangers Lie

            The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is violent, fanatical, barbaric, brutal, intolerant, and . . . add whatever other adjectives you’d like to throw in.  I won’t argue that these characterizations are not true.  But over the summer and into the fall, I have watched and listened with increasing dismay to the shifting sands of the US approach to the situation.

            Not so many months ago, we were assured that the US would not get drawn into another war in the Middle East.  But all through the summer and into the fall came an endless barrage of stories about Yazidis being raped and buried alive by ISIS, and the horrifying videos of Americans and other Europeans being savagely beheaded by ISIS, and the failures of the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries to stem the advance of ISIS.

            The drumbeat for US intervention among US policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits began to grow louder and more insistent, and now the US is regularly sending airstrikes and drone attacks against the ISIS forces.  Airstrikes, but no more, we were assured.  This minimal military involvement, however, does not seem to be working, says counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, who argues that we should put “boots on the ground” by embedding “teams of combat advisers with” Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIS.

            A year ago most Americans had never even heard of ISIS, yet now the US is once again militarily embroiled in a war in the Middle East.  What if we send US advisors and they prove to be ineffective, as they have proved to be over and over again ever since 1961—including in Iraq in the past decade?  Will we then have no choice but to send in the Marines?

            Of course, we’re not doing this alone.  Secretary of State John Kerry says that 40 nations have offered to join our coalition, though he adds, “It’s not appropriate to start announcing” which nations will participate and what each will do.  One remembers G. W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” that included such nations as Albania, Latvia, the Fiji Islands, and the Dominican Republic, and can only wonder which nations belong to our coalition this time.

            Back in 1990, when Saddam Hussein accused the Kuwaitis of slant-drilling and stealing his oil, the US ambassador to Iraq told Saddam that the US “does not take sides in Arab-Arab disputes.”  What would you make of that if you were Saddam?  Only after he acted on what appeared to any reasonable person to be a Green Light from the US did the US decide that putting the Emir of Kuwait back on his gold-plated toilet was a moral imperative.

            We were told by a tearful young girl that Iraqi soldiers tore Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and threw the babies to the floor.  Only much later did we learn that the “eyewitness” turns out to have been the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, who was coached in her testimony before Congress by the same public relations firm that had handled George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election campaign.  Her testimony could not be and has never been corroborated.

            Meanwhile, the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard turned out to be a bunch of rag-tag peasant draftees who were far more eager to run away than to fight Americans.  American audiences were never shown The Highway of Death by the American media, but the rest of the world saw it.  You want to talk bloodthirsty savagery?  Google “Highway of Death” and see what you get.

            And a year later, no less a person than George Will—no bleeding-heart liberal—admitted that the Kuwaitis had been doing exactly what Saddam had said they were doing: stealing Iraqi oil.

            Before the US started putting boots on the ground in the Middle East in August 1990, Iraq was a stable country.  Syria was a stable country.  Libya was a stable country.  Not happy places, to be sure.  But stable.  And secular.  Al Qaida didn’t exist.  ISIS didn’t exist.

            Almost a quarter of a century later, with the US 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain, US air bases in Saudi Arabia, and US army bases in Kuwait, how is the Middle East doing?  After eight years of US boots on the ground in Iraq, how is Iraq doing?  After thirteen years of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan doing?  How is Libya doing after being liberated from Muammar Gaddafi with significant help from the US?  Have we neutralized al-Qaida?  How can ISIS be so effective a fighting force with no air force, no navy, no Pentagon, and no assistance from any major world power while those on whose behalf we want to expend American treasure and American blood can’t defend themselves without our help?

            For that matter, where did al-Qaida come from?  Isn’t al-Qaida the direct descendant of those Afghan mujahideen the US so gleefully armed and funded against the Soviet Union back in the 1980s?  Isn’t ISIS a direct outgrowth of al-Qaida?

            Do we never seem to notice the Iron Law of Unintended Consequences playing itself out over and over again?  Do we not notice that the United States of America cannot make the world behave as we would wish?

            I am not arguing that what is happening in the Middle East is anything other than a disaster for those who are living in the midst of it.  I am not arguing that ISIS deserves a seat in the United Nations.  But I am asking: how much more damage are we going to do in the process of trying to fix the damage we have already done?  How many more enemies will we make trying to kill the ones we’ve already made?  Will the Middle East be better off after we have intervened once again?

            Finally, which is the greater threat to our national security?  Al-Qaida or a crumbling infrastructure of highways, bridges, and tunnels, leaking municipal water systems, and an ancient electrical grid.  ISIS or failing public schools, understaffed hospitals, and overcrowded prisons?  Afgan Taliban or a national debt of nearly $18,000,000,000,000 and rising every day by $2,450,000,000?  Islamist jihadis or a dysfunctional Congress gerrymandered beyond any possibility of compromise?

            We cannot bend the world into the shape we desire through military might, or by any other means for that matter, and our attempts to do so have failed time and time again.  Yet we seem to remain, as a people, as gullible as ever, once again stampeded into winless war by leaders so besotted by the hammer of American military might that they persist in seeing every problem in the world as a nail.

 

Risky Business – The Alexander Kasser Theater, 2004-2014 – by Jedediah Wheeler

At risk.

Risky business.

Risk taker.

Risk averse.

No risk programming, please.

Risk is a loaded word in our culture.

Why take a risk?

Is there a safe way to take a risk?

Let’s be safe, please.

Yet, risk does have its rewards.

Ten years ago, The Alexander Kasser Theater opened.  Quite a lot of risk has flowed under the bridge – even if it is a stage light bridge.

To fathom where we have arrived today, we should consider where we were in 2004.  The Alexander Kasser Theater was nearing completion. An opening date had been set for October 7th.  In July of 2004, there was no Office of Arts & Cultural Programming. No Peak Performances. And no staff. Not even any office space to manage the opening of a new theater, let alone the proposed debut season!

Today, the Kasser is a celebrated addition to the cultural life of the Montclair State University campus as well as the region, with recognizable impact throughout the country and the world. The National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey Arts Council have offered major public commendations to MSU for its innovative programming.  Two major foundations have underwritten the Kasser’s breakout programs that support both the creation of new work and the education of MSU students.

What are the basic ingredients for an innovative presenting program?

Possibility.  Opportunity.  Permission.

Its hallmarks were apparent from the first season. Mikhail Baryshnikov “acted” in a theater work, not a dance work. Vim Vandekeybus showed how film could enhance dance as an active element of the performance, as his dancers magically jumped in and out of a cinematic swimming pool.  Robert Lepage reimagined The Beggars Opera and in doing so drew criticism for his politically incorrect ideas.  And a completely new production of Harry Partch’s Oedipus — a brilliantly-conceived work that had not been seen in decades — was built, rehearsed and performed.

The program did not merely inch into gear. It roared like a dragster at a speedway!

The performance work offered at the Kasser is designed to set a very high bar. Hence the name of the series: Peak Performances.  Arts & Cultural Programming is a research unit empowered to encourage discovery.  From day one, the hardest task was to encourage a doubting audience to put aside its cultural assumptions and experience something new, with open eyes and ears.

The artists of our day suffer enormously because new work is often assumed to be inscrutable. No one wants to say, “I do not understand.”  But shouldn’t questions dominate at an institution of higher education?

Each person who enters the Kasser for a Peak show has the capacity to experience the work being presented.  Culturally, however, we seek answers which filter the experience. Our culture teaches that to enjoy a performance, one must “get it.” If one does not get it, then there is something wrong —  with that person! Self-conscious doubt closes the door of opportunity!

New is a complex word, considering it has only three letters.

New suit.

New smartphone.

New car.

New toothpaste.

How about a new dance? Or new music?  Or new theater?  Nope. Much rather have that old dance. The one everyone knows about.  Or that play Arthur Miller wrote a long time ago. About a salesman.  “If you want to sell a gizmo, slap the word new on it,” Willy might say!  If you want to empty a theater, call the work “new.”

Experimental or avant-garde performance work has had a rocky history in the Garden State. MSU changed that. The agenda unleashed at MSU was unprecedented — a huge risk.  But how does culture move forward if not by challenging conventional wisdom? The seminal artists of our time who will remain benchmarks of our cultural heritage did not take audience surveys before making a performance. Not Merce Cunningham. Not Martha Graham. Not John Adams. Not John Cage or Robert Rauschenberg.

To compound the complicated issue of local cultural relevance, the program at the Kasser needed to settle into the national presenting arena and underscore MSU as a leading arts institution unlike any other.  Major universities such as Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and UCLA have enviable presenting programs.  But few, if any, make performance work from scratch.

The rollout of our current celebration of works “Made in the Kasser” actually started that first season with Harry Partch’s Oedipus.  In our second season, we invited Bill T. Jones to make a new work here. At varied intervals that totaled six weeks, Jones created Blind Date.  The magic of the Kasser began to reveal itself.  The potent relationship of audiences to stage and that stage’s luxurious production possibilities ignited a fierce energy that continues to this day.

In other instances we produced and presented works such as David Lang’s luminous chamber opera, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, David Gordon’s magical romp Shlemiel the First by Robert Brustein, based upon a story by I. B. Singer.  More recently, ACP/Peak produced what is now considered a masterwork: Dog Days by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, directed by Robert Woodruff. And Robert Wilson’s Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter for the Kasser, was that great artist’s first work made in America in 20 years.

Many professionals made works with MSU students onstage at the Kasser. Michael Osuilleabhain and Page Allen’s choral work, Madison’s Descent, was designed by Michael Curry and staged by David Bolger. Works by Meredith Monk, Robert Whitman, Doug Elkins, and Douglas Dunn followed suit.

What is the perfect ecosystem for new ideas to flourish? A risk-embracing place, one that supports a performing arts presenting program specializing in the new.  An institution of higher education with an investment in marquee ideas.

Montclair State University is that place!

Jedediah Wheeler, Executive Director, Arts & Cultural Programming

 

 

 

About Mindfulness Pedagogy: in advance of the 5th Annual Research Academy for University Learning Teaching & Learning Showcase on May 2nd – by Julie Dalley

April 29, 2014

Dear Neil,

In anticipation of our Fifth Annual Research Academy for University Learning Teaching & Learning Showcase this coming Friday,  thank you for your interest in mindfulness pedagogy (also called contemplative pedagogy, or contemplative science) and its practice in higher education.  My own teaching practice attempts to always take a compassionate and contemplative approach, and, as a student of mindfulness pedagogy, here is what I know.

First, I must acknowledge that, while we are seeing an upswing in attention to how mindfulness and higher education intersect — (The New York Times has covered mindfulness in the classroom herehere, and here; The Chronicle of Higher Ed highlights this practice here; and NPR had a recent story available here) – mindfulness is founded upon historical and ingrained cultural and spiritual traditions developed long ago. Now considered secular, contemplative pedagogy has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman societies and borrows heavily from venerable Asian wisdoms: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. There are also many Christian and Judaic spiritual traditions that use meditative or contemplative practices as a form of reaching deep understanding and cultivating heightened attention to ourselves and our relationships with others.

Mindfulness is concerned with our inner selves, cultivating mind and spirit to reach a deeper understanding of who we are, what is important in life and in our relationships with others, and what intrinsic values we uphold as worthy of our attention and development. It encourages an intuitive development of self,  practicing deep attention and focus, and opening awareness that promotes self-compassion, peace, non-anxiety (or reduced anxiety), and social cohesiveness.

In higher education today, we seek to transfer these same practices of deep insight and meditation to our students in order that they can focus more upon things that have value to them and to their communities, and thereby be less distracted by superficial and stress-inducing concerns coming at them from all sides. We teach students to gently and without judgment push away thoughts, distractions, and negative attachments (anger, sadness, jealousy, hatred) so that they can begin to focus on their studies, their health, and their communities.

We can’t learn when we are too focused on things that prevent learning;  indeed, these factors can prevent us from honoring diverse perspectives and ideas.  My colleague Michael Lees argues that, “If a college campus as a microcosm thrives, then academic achievement rises. If academic achievement flourishes, then a fully functioning living system such as a healthy college campus now has the opportunity to take life and learning to the macrocosm and succeed in the global community” (Lees, 4). This is why there has been a renewed interest in contemplative pedagogy; there is a concern in higher education that students lack the skills necessary to “turn off” or, as Sherry Turkle puts it, “untether” themselves from the increasingly dominant and superficial demands for our attention (cf. Chapter 9 of Turkle’s book Alone Together, Basic Books, 2012. ) You can also view a fascinating interview with Turkle here, which discusses her research on how technology actually increases our solitude and our inability to focus on relationships.

The beauty of contemplative pedagogy and practice is that it is interdisciplinary, and benefits both faculty and students. We focus on the now, we attend to ourselves – our physical, emotional, and mental health – and each other, and we concentrate on what matters most to us and learn to push away ideas or distractions that compete for our attention (incoming text messages, constant Twitter feed, work email, Instagram post). This isn’t simply a science that we impose on students to generate better learning (putting it on them, so to speak), but a way of being that we as teachers adapt ourselves, in order to generate excellence in teaching and deeper, more engaged, learning. Ultimately, it is un-crowding our mind, allowing time for reflection and insight, and honing our focus, that we model and sometimes practice with our students.  Here and here are just two examples of the new research that pointedly reveals the benefit to teachers who practice mindfulness. 

You asked about what we are doing at Montclair State University to forward and promote this pedagogy.  At the Research Academy, we have a very active faculty and staff Fellows Program involved with generating discussion, promoting contemplative pedagogy and practice on campus, and designing and implementing new research in the field.

The following is an example of just one small exercise I use to get students to focus on the present moment, and that they find very illuminating and fun.  At the beginning of each semester, I ask my Freshman Writing students to scroll through their texting history and estimate how many texts they send in a day.  In some cases, they couldn’t even estimate how many, as it was well into the hundreds.  I then ask them to write down who they texted most. Usually it was about 5-10 of the same people, all day long (mostly parents and girlfriend/boyfriend). Then I ask to them to look at their texts. What was the most common topic, or exchange? Surprisingly, they were very mundane texts, saying little. Most students couldn’t even recall what they texted to each other. It was a form of communication that existed just to establish or reinforce a connection, but it communicated very little. This exercise was very illuminating to my students, because it showed them how much time and energy they put into a practice they had never stopped to question. It also gave them the chance to do a piece of reflective writing about something that was entirely relevant to their lives.

Hopefully this brief letter will generate some curiosity about the contemplative pedagogy movement, and readers will reach out to me or my colleagues to ask questions or get involved at their own institutions. The exercise I shared above is one of hundreds of ways that educators can introduce more mindful instruction in their classrooms, but the first step is generally adopting a contemplative practice of our own.  Our 5th Annual University Teaching and Learning Showcase on Friday, May 2, 2014  will feature keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Barbezat, arguably the most popular and well-known “face” of contemplative pedagogy in higher education.

Below are some key articles in this field that will inspire and provide more knowledge about this growing pedagogy. Thank you to the Creative Research Center, as always, for being interested in the work of the Research Academy, and for asking the right questions.

— Julie Dalley   dalleyj@mail.montclair.edu  — Assistant Director, Research Academy for University Learning

Select Bibliography 

Barbezat, Daniel and Mirabai Bush. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Print.

Brown, Richard C. “Inner to Outer: The Development of Contemplative Pedagogy.” Naropa University. Web. 20 April 2014.

Flook, Lisa, Goldberg, Simon, Pinger, Laura, Bonus, Katherine, and Davidson, Richard J. “Mindfulness for Teachers: A Pilot Study to Assess Effects on Stress, Burnout, and Teaching Efficacy.” Mind, Brain, and Education. 7:3 (2013), pp. 182-195. Print.

Langer, Ellen. The Power of Mindful Learning. New York: De Capo Press, 1998.

Lees, Michael. “Example Program Evaluation and Benefits of Educational Research: Ecoliteracy, Sustainability, and the 21st Century College.” Walden University, August 2013.

Palmer, Parker. “The Violence of Our Knowledge: On Higher Education and Peace Making.” Transcript of public lecture given at University of Wisconsin-Madison (November 29, 2001). Web. 20 April 2014.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.

Zajonc, Arthur. “Contemplative and Transformative Pedagogy.” Kosmos. V:1 (Fall/Winter 2006). Web. 20 April 2014.

Zajonc, Arthur, and Parker J. Palmer. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

[Julie Dalley enjoys an expansive academic background and extensive study of the position of women in society, historically and in present day. Her research has branched into the fields of rhetoric, rhetoric in fictional narrative, and the rhetorical situation of women writers and gender bias in the literary establishment. Her work is primarily focused upon gender issues in writing development, as well as analyzing the rhetorical writing space of all marginalized communities, including gay/queer, racial, ethnic, and transgender rhetorical discourse. Within this field, she has developed a growing relationship with how teachers can approach social issues from a more mindful and purposeful position within the classroom.  Ms. Dalley’s professional work includes faculty development programming, research on emerging issues in teaching and learning (with a focus on creativity, contemplative practice and pedagogy, and writing) as well as writing, editing, and blogging for the Research Academy at Montclair State University Teaching Times in Higher Education. She has contributed to new scholarship on how to foster creativity in the classroom, the role of faculty development in new teaching practices, and the role of technology in teaching and learning.]

Does Anybody Else Out There in the ‘Blogosphere’ Feel Uneasy After Reading These Two Quotes from The New York Times About Books and Reading? – By Neil Baldwin

Some start-ups choose an ambitious approach to the notion that books require too much time to read. Working in collaboration with an author, editors at the New York start-up Citia take a nonfiction book and reorganize its ideas onto “digital cards” that can be read on different devices and sent through social networks…”The ability to commit 10 or 15 hours to a book is going to be an increasingly fraught decision,” said Peter Meyers, author of Breaking the Page and Citia’s VP for editorial and content innovation, “so we need ways to liberate the ideas trapped inside them.” — “Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind.” The New York Times, 12/1/13.

Technology is starting to give authors data that is more precise and thus potentially more helpful: “If you write as a business, you have to sell books,” said Quinn Loftis, a successful self-published writer for teenagers. “To do that, you have to cater to the market. I don’t want to write a novel because I want to write it. I want to write it because people will enjoy it.”    — “Tailoring Their Books to Readers.” The New York Times, 1/6/14.

As followers of The Creative Research Center know, we are all about giving over this platform to colleagues in academia and the arts here at Montclair State University and around the world, students, like-minded friends. I  have not “blogged” as much as I thought I would when I launched this site nearly four years ago because I’ve so enjoyed soliciting and publishing the ideas of others.

That said, as a lifelong biographer and nonfiction author [www.neilbaldwinbooks.com and on Facebook at Neil Baldwin Books] I woke up this morning with the intense need to post these two brief excerpts that I clipped from The New York Times in the past six weeks.

One inner voice is saying: “Get with the program, NB. All media have changed and will continue to change — and to atomize. Stop clinging to your old literary ethos. As long as people keep reading, what difference does it make how, why, or when?”

Then the other contrarian readerly voice says in response to Mr. Meyers:  “But isn’t part of the joy of reading to enter into a sustained world where you are not so much ‘forced’ as induced to slow down and avert distraction, to pick up a narrative because it is continuous, to follow a story made up of words set down in a certain order for thousands of certain reasons?”

Further, the stubborn authorial voice says to Mr. Loftis: “Certainly I want my books to sell! However, if that were the leading edge of my motivation, I know myself well enough to realize that the writing will suffer. I have learned the hard way (there is no other way) that when I let my voice come forth in a structure and form that are constructed over a span of months and years the result is a book I can stand by and that stands for me.”

Like I said…it took me awhile to decide to add to the multitude of discourse flying around the Web about the matter of — or the matter with — literacy in our fragmented world.

What do you think? Where do we go from here — as writers and readers?

Please let me and others know — click on the response icon at the top of the page.

 

The “selfie” – an aesthetic of realism – by Hugh Curnutt

THE Oxford Dictionary recently named selfie, the practice of taking and distributing a self-authored photograph of oneself using a smartphone, its word of the year for 2013. Invariably, the commentary that typically accompanies such a proclamation has bubbled up in order to assess, and in some cases decry, yet another media phenomenon brought about by a purportedly narcissistic culture awash with front-facing camera phones and obsessed with celebrity and self-promotion.

 

Fans of Kim Kardashian surround the reality celebrity as they shoot selfies of themselves and the star.

AP Photo / Mal Fairclough
Fans of Kim Kardashian surround the reality celebrity as they shoot selfies of themselves and the star.

 

Although I am sure some of this commentary has its merits, I think far too often public discourse about social media, and digital culture more broadly, is inclined to focus on the novelty of new forms of communication instead of considering the extent to which these innovations are actually a continuation of already existing media practices.

Which is to say, from my point of view, it is worth thinking about how something like selfies actually functions to reinforce as well as disrupt the norms associated with self-authored media content.

At its most elemental, taking selfies is photographing oneself in order to share those images with other people. This inclination, of course, is not new. From a psychoanalytic perspective, for instance, one could argue that such an activity is just another manifestation of an enduring propensity to represent what we imagine our identity to be to others.

At the same time, selfies embody a form of representation that is, like so much social media, increasingly abundant and highly dependent on immediacy. For example, many of us share images throughout the day using handy mobile devices in order to capture a happening, however banal, in real time (I am quite fond of texting photos of food).

In this scenario, the value associated with something like selfies not only comes from immediacy, it is also derived from the way that selfies use the author’s face to code an image with a personalized and, therefore, intimate quality.

Authenticity

From the perspective of media studies scholars such as myself, this intimacy is one of the most interesting aspects of a phenomenon like selfies because it connects the practice to a more pervasive interest in media that uses amateur performers — whether they are on reality TV, YouTube or webcams — to affect an aesthetic of realism and authenticity.

Thought about in this context, the contours defining our media landscape are reflected in the various ways in which selfies are now coming to exist in our daily lives. As already mentioned, selfies are very similar to other kinds of social media practices that encourage us to curate and regularly tend to online personas.

They are also another instance in which ubiquitous digital technology provides a seemingly egalitarian form of self-promotion. Because so many of us have smartphones and accounts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, we all have the ability to publicize ourselves.

Paying attention

The question to be asked, then, is who — besides the NSA and Google, of course — is really paying attention? Who wants to see a self-portrait of you while you wait for a friend in a parking lot? Unless you are famous, the answer is most likely, very few. If you are famous, however, that same image could be easily monetized in the hands of a good publicist.

And this is how I suspect the cultural logic driving the selfie phenomenon connects more broadly to other types of social media: individuals who are already public figures (actors, athletes, musicians, politicians) will increasingly snap “spontaneous” selfies in order to garner publicity while lesser known members of the digital ecosystem transmit similar types of images, but to much smaller audiences and, in most cases, to different ends.

Today, for instance, we are said to live in era that is increasingly inundated with different kinds of celebrity. At the same time, however, our relationship with celebrity has not changed all that much. The pleasure to be had in seeing a selfie of Alec Baldwin while he waits in a dentist’s office is not that dissimilar from the enjoyment found in looking at tabloid photos of celebrities walking their dogs or getting parking tickets.

In such images we are given evidence of what celebrities are like at their most ordinary, which celebrities and their handlers have always used to cultivate marketable private personas.

Conversely, non-celebrities taking selfies appears to follow a similar, albeit inverse, logic that informs social media more generally: We busy ourselves creating and maintaining online personas as if we were in some sense already famous in the hopes of appearing somehow less ordinary in order to make friends, attract lovers, secure jobs and so on.

[This essay first appeared in The Record/NorthJersey.com on December 1, 2013.]

Hugh Curnutt, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. He works in the areas of critical media and cultural studies.  His research is broadly concerned with evolving communication technologies and the shifting intersection of media producers and consumers. His main project explores the changing televisual landscape, especially the ongoing reconfiguration of television’s institutions and performers in a post-network era.  His work also examines the cultural impact of mobile technologies and self-authored media content on contemporary celebrity.  He is currently preparing a study of frontier reality programming and discourses of masculinity and neoliberalism.