Saturday, February 23, 2008

Politics: Lawrence Lessig + Change Congress

Earlier this week, I was uplifted and excited to hear news that one of the men I most respect in the public sphere, Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a Stanford Law Professor, and though fairly young has achieved a certain level of internet fame. He has published a few books, mostly around his idea of Free Culture.

As a Stanford Constitutional law professor, his main area of focus seemed to be how our law system is being transformed by the Internet--not surprising for a young law scholar, because that's the new frontier of our society. Once there, his attention was drawn to Intellectual Property law--which he believes is currently highly onerous, and I tend to agree in fairly strong terms. Finding inspiration in folks like Richard Stallman (who in 1983 started the GNU Project, which fostered Linux) who believed that intellectual property could survive without extreme protections (like the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, or the DMCA), Lessig began a series of lectures and books to examine the issues of free culture. This led him to co-found the Creative Commons, which offers an alternative to copyright.

People like Stallman and Lessig have at this point been tagged as the 'copyleft' movement, because of their progressive alternatives to copyright. As an artist, Lessig is more important to me than Stallman (The Creative Commons caters mostly to artists and academics; GNU Project is a programmer's venture). The show I am currently working on would be far more expensive if I had to pay each individual rights; I am not 'stealing' anyone's work, but I would still probably be charged thousands of dollars. The ability to share and create works based on old works is part of the lifeblood of me and artists like me; it is the corporate world which objects to this, for the most part.

But starting from the end of last year, Lessig made a shift that was surprising to people like me who aren't very close to him personally: he decided to leave the copyleft movement in favor of an anti-corruption movement which had not yet formed. He created an anti-corruption wiki (which was an engaging concept: politics by wiki), and started to stump for Barack Obama. Outside of the internet world, he's not a very widely known academic, so it didn't make that much of an impact.

This week, it looked like that was about to change. In Lessig's home district (CA 12), US Representative Tom Lantos died, and a special election was brewing. Lessig formed an exploratory committee to explore launching the Change Congress movement (the name of the anti-corruption movement now).

My reaction was, on the whole positive. I'm still highly positive for that idea, although I don't live in CA12. Why?
  • Lessig is a knowledgable Constitutional Law professor, who has argued cases before the Supreme Court.
  • Lessig was portrayed by Christopher Lloyd on the West Wing. (That's not a real reason, but it's cool).
  • Lessig is one of the few people who I know of in the political sphere who have ever even given thought to Intellectual Property. You don't hear anyone talking about it, you don't see it anywhere. There's a massive copyright lobby, but the copyleft lobby is still in its infancy; new organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are still in their infancy.
  • Lessig wants to create a progressivist movement, which I think this country badly needs; Barack Obama's current traction and the 'change' buzzword are indicators of this.
  • Lessig is one of the few 'change' people out there who has fully articulated that real 'change' transcends the individual issues; the ways in which issues are resolved have to be tackled.

This is why I would have loved to see a Lessig '08 and even though he wouldn't have represented me, I would have donated for him.

Unfortunately, a few days later, he was already posting that he was not going to run. His reasoning, although saddening, was sound: he wasn't going to win. The opponent in the Democratic primary, Jackie Speier (although I don't know her) is apparently a very popular, very well respected, very experienced Democrat. Although I also think Lessig would do a good job, there doesn't appear to be a chance that Lessig would unseat Speier, and he would wind up hurting Change Congress.

The important thing, however, is that the Change Congress movement is still out there. Nine months away from the election--Change Congress could have a baby by then. A baby of democracy, I suppose. This is the movement we need, a progressive answer to the Republican Revolution of 1996. But we need to know more; the website, currently, is just a mailing list signup. I want to know where Lessig is going with this movement. How do they want to change Congress? How are they going to tackle nonprocedural issues?

I'm dying to know. And I hope I'll soon find out.

Review-Idea: Bad Plays; Frogs

Yesterday, I was working on a friend on the Onion's crossword. One of the clues was "Where 'good' is 'bad.'" The answer was "in slang," but today I'm thinking the answer might sometimes be "the theater." This thought dawns on me because I've just come from the play Frogs, or Old Comedy, or Another Play Entirely; a play so chaotic that it has three names, depending on where you're hearing about it from.

The conceit, although confusing to sort through, seems to be thus: a production of Aristophanes' Frogs is being put on. Aristophanes' Frogs is a comedy wherein Dionysus, god of wine and drama, takes his slave Xanthias into Hell to try and find Euripides. Dionysus wants Euripides to come back and save Athens through his beautiful poetry. But the production of Another Play Entirely is not in any way 'faithful' to the original production; chaos reigns onstage, actors swap roles continually, texts from John Lennon, Bob Marley, MLK, and Charles Cavendish Clifford impose themselves on the text.

This play is very problematic to review because, by any of the usual standards of theater, it is terrible. But precisely for every reason that the play would normally be considered 'terrible,' it actually succeeds. The key is in the deep sincerity of the actors and the need to tell the story. The irreverence and the childishness is not in a spirit of opposition, where the actors condescend or assault the audience; rather they are trying to help the audience understand, to tell them a story. It is rather like having a child tell you an important story.

Take, for instance, the music, composed by Thomas Cabaniss and the cast as a whole, and performed with accompaniment by Jonathan Hart Makwaia. The songs are chaotic, sporadic, and often overpowering; there is a bluntness of style that helps convey the rawness of the material being sung about. At one point, for instance, the ensemble appears as frogs (for which the play bears its original name). They sing the original Greek chant which the frogs traditionally sing ("brekekeke koaxkoax") in loud, brassy tones, and cavort around the stage in a faux-ballet, mimicking all the while closeminded critics. The tone is too sharp and (ironically) too chaotic to be arrived at by accident. There is a distinct, unsettling effect which all of this mayhem aims at.

And this is not unpleasant. The characters are endearing; John Kurzynowski's Dionysus is a truly empathetic character, no matter how flagrant his show-queen attitude is. He provides one of the windows through which the audience can watch this strange spectacle and not be completely alienated; he continues to long for a show without the constant interruption of liberal politics and heavy cynicism (both of which pervade the play). At one point he sings about wanting another number about show queens, because they're tame and uncomplicated; several times he repeats the phrase "This was supposed to be a comedy."

There is, often in art, a strain of almost anti-artistic art; art that takes bad taste or blunt content and use them to stir up stronger feelings in the audience than the usual tame, formally pleasing fare. And yet, in order to succeed they need a heavy reliance on comedy. Bertold Brecht, for instance, constantly strove for a way to overthrow the traditional ways of looking at theater, and often held up 'bad' theater as examples of better ways of approaching his theater. And often audiences have embraced shows despite their violations of all the rules; neo-classical scholars had to exempt Shakespeare from their perfect Aristotelian unities. Certainly, Another Play Entirely makes a sporting event to throw all the rules it can lay its hands on out the window, and despite the odds against it makes itself an enjoyable evening.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Review: Imminence

Things do not happen quickly in the play Imminence; tensions build slowly and passively until the moment where pressures are let loose in a shuddering quake. As the play progresses, it charts three generations of a family, through memories and simple moments, slowly illuminating their lives and how they cope with the loss of one of their own. Realizations and understandings steal slowly over the audience as the storytelling moves quietly forward.

The opening moments of the show are crucial for setting the stage. A simple domestic scene is set, with pedantic, everyday talk. But other actors stand at one side of the stage, humming and singing a tender acoustic song composed by Ellen Maddow. The talk at the table and the movements of the actors become part of the music, providing their own unique rhythms and melodies to the music. The care with which each actor performs their role, and the quiet, unassuming emotions with which the music is embued, allowed me to tune my ears to hear much subtler and more potent strains of conversation.

From that moment forward, the dialogue and the actions onstage became surreal, even though they were simple actions in life. Writer-Director Paul Zimet provides a highly minimalist script, understanding that if each moment is simple and highly specific, it can have the power of an entire television epic. The actors perform in such roles with an openness and simplicity that drives such moments home: Will Badgett, as Victor, can turns a scene where he does nothing more than shuffle to the bathroom and back in the middle of the night into a quiet, potent scene. He performs roughly that same scene three times; only the third time, he addresses the audience with a heartbreakingly beautiful monologue.

The technical elements were, for the most part, as minimalist as the show. Carol Mullins' lighting design matches the tone of the show, creating the effect of streetlamps through shutters at night with a poetic precision. The exception which proves the rule of minimalism is the set, two black platforms designed by Nic Ularu, which split in half, and over the course of the play drift further and further away from each other. At times, this set choice didn't seem to be used as powerfully as it could have, but when it was fully utilized--such as for Hilary Easton's choreography, Will Badgett's monologue, or a scene in which Rory (David Brooks) confronts his family from across the divide--the result was simple and powerful.

There were, admittedly, some scenes that were less effective overall, and could have been jettisoned without damaging the experience. But because of the gentle pace and the wonderful gifts which I received, I was not bothered too badly. It is very rare that I form such a deep empathy with the performers onstage, and--as if reciprocating the performer's welcoming spirit--I cannot judge them for a few missteps.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Review: Macbeth

Shakespeare seems so dry, so removed from our times, that it is hard to imagine it having a deep, visceral impact. Richard Foreman once said that all theater is about death because in the act of freezing it and performing it exactly, over and over, we've killed it. If that's true, then Shakespeare has been dead for hundreds of years. The production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Rupert Goold and staring Patrick Stewart (Macbeth) and Kate Fleetwood (Lady Macbeth), does create that visceral feeling. This is what a remounting of a classic should be: absolutely grounded in our guts.

The set, designed by Anthony Ward, provides an immediate base from which the play can already begin its powerful effect. It is gray and dingy, at once recalling ugly kitchens, sinister morgues, interrogation rooms, or whatever gloomy industrial needs one might have. As the play progresses, a few small moving set pieces are all that is needed to transform this set into whatever locale is needed.

Meanwhile, an equally sinister story is being told onstage. Macbeth and his companion Banquo (Martin Turner) come back from the war as heroes, but a prophecy from three demonic sisters (Sophie Hunter, Polly Frame, Niamh McGrady) gives him an appetite for more: he and his wife collude to murder the King of Scotland, and everyone who stands in their way.

The play has a very distinct tone, set in place not only by the set, but also by powerful sound choices from designer Adam Cork, subtle lighting design by Howard Harrison, and video/projection design by Lorna Heavey. The tone was very distinctly set, creating a very heavy and sometimes overpoweringly suspenseful backdrop to all of the character's actions.

Sometimes, early on, this was not ideal--it seemed as though the choices were so powerful that they'd have nowhere else to go as the play progressed. The video projections in particular were often less helpful; it seemed to me as though they should have either been used more, or used less. Some visions, such as the appearance of a ghost near the end of the second act, were accompanied by strong psychedelic projections. But others, like the infamous "is that a dagger which I see before me?" were played without any projection at all. I found it difficult to understand what the logic was behind certain choices of projection versus others. But there was no denying that even before the end of the first scene, the show's tone and mood was very powerfully set, and that all of the design elements had played a part.

Of course, had the mood prevailed in one tone for an entire show, it might have become overpowering, even stifling. And it is here that the director and the actors are to be commended for balancing out the mood. The heavy tones of the play could have been insufferably relentless, but at times became a springboard to turn even the subtlest humor into a real joy and release. In one scene, Macbeth is discussing ordering a murder. As he does so, he prepares a sandwich for himself and for the murderers, putting it in one murderer's mouth to stifle objection. The choice brought humor into a stark moment, but the care with which the choice was deployed turned an intellectual concept about greed into a human moment of hunger.

This transformation of intellectual concepts into visceral, emotional experiences was clear in each of the actors. Patrick Stewart's Macbeth was a very human incarnation, whose soliloquoys seemed to be honest conversations with the audience. No matter how many murders, or how vile his actions were, there was a human being looking for something, whether it be from the audience or from other members of the ensemble. Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth was equally invested with life; like Lady Macbeth she seemed to be able to slide from one end of Lady Macbeth's existence to the other without destroying the integrity of the character. Neither character ever milked the "great lines" of Shakespeare any more than the moment dictated.

The term 'modernization' is bandied about a lot in reference to Shakespeare, but it seems strange to talk about this production as 'modernizing' Macbeth. Although the prop elements (also from Anthony Ward) and the costume choices (supervised by Christine Rowland) were 'modern,' the feeling was not that this is what Macbeth would look like if it happened in the 21st Century. It looked to me as though this story was a universal story, and that all of these 'modern' elements had been selected for no other reason than to make the story work. The time in which the play took place was not important--what was important is that it was happening now, in the visceral sort of way that theater has of always happening now.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Culture Future

We have a culture. It is unavoidable to have a culture. Culture, it seems, is something which simply happens. It develops, like an organism, over time. It (and I hope I'm not being too controversial) evolves, shedding antiquated layers and developing new strategies for survival. Cultures stack; the way that cells combine to form tissues and tissues for organs and so on, so too do local cultures combine with larger cultures. There is a global culture, Western and Eastern cultures, national cultures, state cultures, all the way down to neighborhood cultures.

Culture is often portrayed as something almost fate-like in origin. Unseen and unalterable rules govern its existence, forming its members the way that water forms mountains. Sometimes we excuse bad actions as being cultural in origins, sometimes we see events and call them inevitable because of their cultural origins. This is partly because culture is overwhelming: it encapsulates everything we do, all of the spheres of our thoughts and our public and private activities. To manage our image of culture, we imagine that only the best of culture is actually culture; Rembrant is called 'cultural' but Hannah Montana is not.

Unfortunately, culture is everything. And everything is overwhelming. It is easy to believe that we cannot change culture, because it is so large. So we throw our hands up and accept it as fate. But it doesn't have to be. In fact, it is because we treat culture's problems as large problems that we are helpless in the face of it. But culture does not need to be vast and monolithic. It may be greater than the sum of its parts, but it is still vulnerable to changes in any of its parts. By altering the parts of culture within our reach, we can slowly shift the seemingly massive edifice of culture, first on a local level, then on larger and larger levels.

And, of course, the more people you have working with you, the more change you can make. What we notice as 'history' are those moments when enough people, or a few people in just the right places, have the opportunity to shift the edifice of culture more than just a little bit. But those opportunities always exist, in greater and lesser degrees.

This blog is about the future of culture. It cannot be about the future of all culture, only the future of culture from one perspective. The things I am interested will influence what, in culture, I am focusing on: theater, politics, and satire are among the elements that awaken my own critical focus. Because the first step in changing culture is observing it, understanding it, and seeing how the cogs turn. Then the discussion begins as to whether the culture needs the change, and how to effect it. These changes should not have to be radical, but they can happen, and they can happen for good.