Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

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The humanities: It’s not about what they are; it’s what we do

November 16, 2009

Due to an overwelmingly positive response, we wanted to share the following article with you, which was published in a variety of newspapers throughout Indiana, including the Indianapolis Star on Nov. 4, under the headline “Get in touch with the humanities.”

By Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council. 

Once, after a dance performance, Isadora Duncan was asked what the dance meant. Her response has become famous as a terse description of art’s purpose: “If I could tell you what it meant,” she said, “there would be no point in dancing it.”

In my role as president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council, I often find myself being asked, “What are the humanities?” And sometimes, like Isadora Duncan, I think it’d be easier to dance than answer the question.

Why? Because sometimes describing the humanities is like describing the wind – it’s easier to say what it does than what it is. It swirls leaves on an autumn sidewalk. It teases a little girl’s hair. It pulses through a wheat field like waves on a landlocked sea.

So, I thought I’d explain what the humanities are by explaining what you can do – and perhaps already do – in, through and with them every day.

I don’t pretend that this list is conclusive; I know it only scratches the surface. But I hope that it will, in its breadth and diversity, allow you to create – and, more important, put into action – your own definition of the humanities. So, let’s get started:

Read a novel. Read a poem. Read the directions on a shampoo bottle. Read the Declaration of Independence. Read a blog. Read an essay. Read a review of a book you’ll never read. Read a sacred text. Read your diary. Read to a kid. Read the liner notes to an old jazz album. Read the lyrics to a song you love. Read a libretto.

See a play with a friend. Go early. Wander through the theater. View the stage from different angles. Peruse the program. Learn about the actors. Watch the play. Study the set. Notice the lighting. Listen to reactions. Find a place to have coffee. Discuss the play. Go to another play. Repeat the process.

Visit a courtroom. Visit a classroom. Visit an old teacher. Visit a park. Visit a museum. Visit a library. Visit City Hall. Visit a college campus. Visit a craftsman’s workbench. Visit an artist’s studio.

Look at a piece of art. Study it. Step back. Look at the piece beside it. Ask yourself: Why are these pieces next to each other? Why is this art? Step back again. Ask yourself: Does the size of the room affect the way I look at the art? Step back again. How does seeing more change the way you see the art?

Listen to a band. Listen to a debate. Listen to a well-tuned machine. Listen to a podcast. Listen to a diner ordering dinner. Listen to a photographer describing a photo. Listen to an architect explaining a building’s design. 

Stop outside a building you pass every day; look at its design. Do you know the name for the architectural style? Do you like it? What appeals to you? What would you do differently? Get a book about architecture and learn about the style. Find other examples of that style and compare them. Find examples of other styles and compare them. Take a walk with a colleague and debate the architecture you see.

Attend a historic-home tour. Attend a lecture. Attend the symphony. Attend a gallery reception. Attend a festival. Attend a legislative session. Attend opening night (of anything). Attend a public forum.

Speak at a public forum. Sing in a choir. Yell “Bravo” at a concert. Ask a question. Tell someone your family’s history. Recite a poem. Describe a work of art. Say what you think.

Now, think about what you’ve done. You’ve examined, studied and reviewed something made by humans or something that makes us human. You’ve thought about it, pondered it and processed it. And you’ve talked about it, debated it and discussed it.

That’s what the humanities are.

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Making it Relevant: Surviving Shakespeare

July 2, 2009

Something is rotten in the state of Indiana. A few nights ago I convinced a group of my friends to sit down and watch a PBS production of King Lear. Finally, I thought, my friends and I will be able to connect at a higher intellectual level than ever before! This evening will begin with Shakespeare and end with a rousing conversation about the nature of the English language itself. Curiously enough, every obligation in the world, every hitherto procrastinated task, suddenly pulled them away from Shakespeare (I find it hard to believe someone left an oven on in a dorm room). It was as if they were totally bored (how could they?). My remaining friends decided a cigarette break would be far more interesting and so I tumbled headlong from the dizzy peaks of Shakespeare’s intellect to the smoke-and-drink- soaked valleys of contemporary college life.

If you’re as big a Shakespeare fan as I am (I sometimes fail to differentiate between myself and Hamlet), situations like these can easily become life-threatening crises. I would like to argue, though, that if you have ever felt anything vaguely like a human being (my friends must not have) you can find something to appreciate in Shakespeare. His characters have stood the test of time because they simply radiate humanity.

Consider Romeo, Shakespeare’s quintessential lover. We may never speak in iambic soliloquies, we may never see the need to loiter below our girlfriend’s balcony (or upper-level dorm room), we may never even see the need to duel to the death (though things would certainly be more interesting if public duels were allowed), but when he proclaims that “He jests at scars who never felt a wound,” we can all appreciate the desperate longing for affirmation and affection he experiences – because we all have been there from time to time.

Even Hamlet’s existential crisis remains important. How many teenagers in the world have felt that their parents just don’t get them? Or that their significant other has betrayed them? How many adults have felt that way? How often are we unsure of ourselves because we’re not convinced the people around us are acting for our best interest? These timeless joys and struggles, without which we would not recognize ourselves as human beings, find such wonderful expression in Shakespeare that we do ourselves a disservice not to at least consider him. The language can be tough – but when brought to life by a good performance, it could change your entire way of thinking.

Shakespeare remains relevant because he makes unforgettably human the puzzles, sorrows, and joys of life. Whether we learn from tragedy, comedy, or history, Shakespeare remains a treasure chest of thought and entertainment. Within the immortal works of our Bard, there is truly something for everyone.

This weekly series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council) will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

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I’m Blogging the Fringe

August 23, 2008

In non-Indiana Humanities Council-related news your humble blogger is blogging about a few IndyFringe Festival plays for Smaller Indiana.

You can check out my review of The Best of the Blizzard which is up right now. (You probably have to be a member to see it, but that;’s not such a bad thing either.) You can also check out all the various reviews that will be going up in the next 48 or so hours from me and the other IFF bloggers.

Today I’m seeing (and then blogging about) Good Grief, Sidney and The Babbling Banshee (both at Comedy Sportz).

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Friday Blincoln Blog

June 27, 2008

My parents divorced when I was 13. Before turning 14 and starting high school, my mom and I moved to her hometown, Evansville, Indiana. My dad was in the Army and so prior to that I was only an occasional Hoosier.

We moved in with my aunt for the summer while mom got her bearings: found a house, a job etc. My aunt encouraged me to spend more time at the house of a friend of hers. They went camping…a lot.

It is no exaggeration to say that I spent the majority of that summer at Lincoln State Park. No joke. We Junior Naturalist Patchwent out there for a weekend, then a week, and then…after that…we came home only two or three times to do laundry and pick up more groceries. I earned my Junior Naturalist and Hoosier Ecologists badges (.pdf) from the Department of Natural Resources and I went to practically every hike, star gazing, flower identifying, or bird watching event that was sponsored by the park rangers.

I walked “the trails that Lincoln walked;” I visited his churchyard; and I saw where some of his family was buried.

And I watched Young Abe Lincoln probably 1,000 times. That part might be exaggeration. In some box somewhere in my house, is a signed play program from every actor and actress that walked in front of the lime lights of the amphitheater that summer. Apparently Young Abe Lincoln disappeared for awhile after they lost their funding but it is expected to resume next year. And thank goodness. I suppose that none of us likes to see the things we enjoyed as children disappear.

Traveling from Evansville to Lincoln City was also the first time I ever rode on a motorcycle. And that’s pretty cool.

All things considered, it was a pretty great summer, a truly unforgettable experience. Some people commune with nature but I spent a summer in the woods communing with our 16th president.

Because I’m a double nerd.

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Chicago’s Strange Tree has Roots in Indiana

June 19, 2008

I met Emily Schwartz a million years ago and recognized immediately her unstoppable, quirky genius. Now all of Chicago recognizes it too.

You have to admit, even Indiana’s arts and humanities exports are pretty impressive. And obviously, if you’re heading into the Windy City you should try to time it to catch one of these shows.

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Our Dad is in Atlantis

May 14, 2008

I said on Friday that I would offer a review (of sorts) of Phoenix Theatre’s newest play, Our Dad is in Atlantis. Turns out, it’s the kind of play I needed to think about for a couple of days longer than I had anticipated.

I’ve not read the script on which this production was based nor had I seen any other version of this play prior to the Phoenix’s, so it’s impossible for me to judge precisely what elements were requested by the playwright and which came from the mind of the production team. In any case, I think I can say this with some amount of confidence: this play is beguilingly simple. The interaction between the two actors and between their lines is straightforward and natural. Important lines are delivered in ways unassuming of future importance. The lighting and music offer no clues to an audience anxious to follow and anticipate the action of the two child-characters on stage.

In other words there is very little in the presentation to clue the audience into the fact that they are being challenged in any way.

The stage design is minimalist and abstract. From the center stage ceiling hang three wavy lines punctuated with simple geometric shapes. Backstage is a large circle. To the (audience’s) right, a simple black riser. At the start of each scene a projected screen announces chapter titles: “Stuff about the countryside” reads one, “Stuff about gringos,” another and others. The lighting design is similarly straightforward.

In some ways the abstract stage seems jarring to the earthy and direct dialogue. At other times, a late scene in the desert comes to mind, when the children are so clearly out of their element, the dispassionate and alien stage is perfect. The music similarly weaves itself on top of and then into the plot, at times disconcertingly out of place, at other times too accessibly eerie, too forthrightly ominous. The music and the onstage musician, take on a presence, like the projected screen, of being an omniscient presence, greedily holding back the story, relishing in our ignorance and anticipation.

Other than the accordion player, there are only two characters on stage, the two boys whose father is in Atlantis (really “Atlanta” as misread by one of the young characters). But they are not alone in the world, just on stage. After their mother’s death they move in with their grandmother when their father heads to America to earn money. After their grandmother’s death, they move in with an aunt and an uncle and two cousins. There are also schoolmates that plague the two boys.

In another, more important, way, it is wrong to say that the boys are not alone in the world, because they most definitely are. Each scene is shadowed by distance or abandonment, from the opening scene on a bus when the two boys are about to be left at their grandmother’s house, to the end when they are finally running from their horrible lives and headed north themselves. In most cases the the evils of the world have recently been visited upon one of the two boys: a black eye courtesy of a school bully, a caning at the hand of grandma. Sometimes the catastrophe is nearby, but too threatening a presence nevertheless, as when a cousin has to be taken to the dentist–his off stage screams are played by a discordant accordion.

As the play unfolds and then end, more questions are raised than answers given. By its finale several unsettling questions remain–which seems to be one of the points of this play, to challenge expectations and to aid in discussing important questions that seem too often ignored. The most important question in this regard is this: What or where is Atlantis?

At first it seems so obvious. Atlantis is Atlanta. But as the play goes on Atlantis comes to represent first an earthly and then a spiritual paradise, that is, heaven. As the play ends, Atlantis seems to be something else altogether: the past, the paradise lost, Eden, and, in the context of the play, Mexico. Mexico is the paradisaical realm, sinking beneath monstrous waves, sending it’s people out in tragic and lonely diaspora.

“That place doesn’t exist!” says the older brother to the younger–and later, “That place never existed.” And it’s true, the land left behind, as the lives of these two children bear witness, is not the perfect place they would imagine if they’d left. It is not the perfect place their father likely thinks of while working in Atlanta. The children remember a past with their mother that is likely better than the reality. This commonplace idea is of “you can’t go home again” is skirted from a variety of views until it too is a violent and distance character on the stage like the aunt, uncle, grandmother, father, and cousins.

This a good play and an important one and the Phoenix does not disappoint in putting together a performance that leaves one pondering the subjects at hand long after the final bow. I will most likely see the play again this time in Spanish. And, if it is within your ability to enjoy the play in Spanish I would recommend that you do that. The play was originally written in Spanish and takes place in Mexico. Certain textual flaws would likely vanish in the reversion to the original and it would significantly add to the power of the dialogue which relies, in part, on its naturalness–a naturalness it loses somewhat in the translation.

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La Obra Nueva del Teatro Fenix–¡en Español!

May 9, 2008

The new play by the Phoenix Theatre–in Spanish!

Papá está en la Atlántida (Our Dad is in Atlantis) opened last night at Indianapolis’ Phoenix Theatre. I’m heading to see it tonight after work. Expect a review (of some sorts) over the weekend.

The Phoenix’s reputation for choosing challenging material (and doing it well) and the play’s subject matter compel me to expect great things. The version I’ll be seeing is in English which almost certainly means I’ll be back to catch una versión española también.

The play runs until June 8 but be sure to pick your language of choice. Spanish versions are on May 22, 23, 29, 30 and June 1, 5, 6.

Apparently there will be live accordion music. ¡Qué auténtico!

This entry was posted by: Jim