Friday, August 10, 2018

Thank you, Jerrold Nadler (and Carolyn Maloney and Nydia M. Velazquez and...)

For years now, I have complained about the helicopters that fly over Central Park, especially the ones that love to hover right over the Delacorte Theater during performances of free outdoor plays.

If ever there was a case of rich jerks ruining New York City for tons of ordinary citizens, it is these helicopters that sometimes make plays inaudible for hundreds of people, all so some millionaire can look down on the rest of us--literally.

That's why I was very excited to hear on the radio today that Congressman Jarrold Nadler is requesting that the Federal Aviation Administration restrict helicopters from flying over the park during performances by The Public Theater. I went to the congressman's website, and I was delighted to read that a number of members of congress have signed on to a joint letter supporting the restrictions.

Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Nydia M. Velazquez, Eliot Engel, Yvette D. Clarke, Hakeem Jeffries, and Adriano Espaillat are all asking the FAA to take action, as is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. For some reason, New York's other senator, Chuck Schumer, has been noticeably quiet on this issue. This is the letter his colleagues sent to Daniel K. Elwell, acting administrator of the FAA:

We are requesting that the FAA institute Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) over Central Park during the summer evenings of the outdoor performances of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park Festival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.  Over the past months and years the helicopter traffic at night over Central Park has steadily gotten worse. The constant noise generated from hovering and flying helicopters over the Delacorte Theater has interrupted the performance of the shows, and disrupted what is a cherished New York City summer tradition.

The Public has a rich history that spans more than fifty years.  Founded by the legendary Joseph Papp in 1962, The Public is regarded as one of the country’s foremost cultural institutions. The Public’s signature Shakespeare in the Park program is a beloved New York institution, distributing free tickets to open-air Shakespeare performances featuring many of the country’s leading actors.  Since its inception, free Shakespeare in the Park has been seen by nearly five million people, and keeps their productions accessible by offering free or low-cost theater performances and educational and community programming.

This quintessential New York experience is being threatened by the noise generated by the helicopter traffic.  For decades, helicopter flights over New York City and in the surrounding region have impacted the quality of life of our constituents, and our skies are inundated by the large numbers of tourist helicopters.  These flights are dangerous to the public, cause noise pollution, and have a negative impact on people living in a dense, urban community.  Since 2007, there have been at least 8 helicopter accidents over the City of New York.  And just recently on March 11, 2018 a helicopter carrying sightseeing tourists crashed into the East River in New York City, killing the five passengers on board.  On each occasion, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) failed to sufficiently act to regulate helicopter traffic.

While you are considering stronger regulations to deal with congestion and excessive noise generated from helicopter traffic in the sky, we request a fix that could be done immediately, and would give our constituents confidence that the FAA understands the depth of this quality of life issue, and will address the problem.

We urge you to issue a TFR for outdoor performances of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park Festival during the May through August performances with the exception of law enforcement and emergency flights. Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.

With the mess our country is in right now, there are certainly more important issues than helicopter traffic. Still, our government sometimes seems to be answerable only to the rich and powerful, and it's nice to see politicians standing up for an issue that affects me personally, as well as so many other ordinary New Yorkers who use the park.

Central Park should be a refuge in the city, and I'd like to see all non-emergency helicopters banned from the airspace above Central Park, whether there is a performance going on or not. That might never happen, but banning them during performances in the Delacorte would be an excellent start.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Back From Boston

Well, I'm back from the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education in Boston. That's no thanks to the MTA, who made me walk home from 96th Street after I got back, since they refused to run their promised shuttle buses for the hundreds of people waiting on the sidewalk after getting kicked off the 2 and 3 trains.

But that's another matter. How was the conference? It was held at the Westin Hotel, which is a perfectly good hotel in the middle of the completely dead Seaport area of the city. I was staying with my friend Natalia, who convinced me that the Silver Line could get me to the hotel and conference center. Well, the Silver Line (which is a monstrous bastard child of a bus and a trolley that drives through an infernal concrete bunker) will get you there, but you have to make sure not to get off at street level, since all of the sidewalks are closed. Once you get to the Westin, there's very little around it (other than a Dunkin' Donuts) so you're likely to stay inside for a conference there.

Once I got up to the upper level of the station, I was able to get to the Westin without too much of a problem. The first day got off to a rocky start, as the orientation time was moved forward at the last minute. The conference organizers had a printed program, but since so much of the information in it was incorrect, they asked that we instead use the conference app. They provided easy-to-follow instructions on how to install the app, but apparently never tested them on an Android device. While people with iPhones had no problems, anyone without an expensive iPhone had to find a workaround. Hopeless old-timers with flip-phones were completely screwed. Accessibility seems not to have been a big priority of organizers.

The conference was not all there was to do in Boston, though. I took advantage of the fact I was in town to apply for a readers card for Special Collections at the Harvard Library. I wanted to take a look at some of the toy theatres Harvard has. I got my readers card and went to the Houghton Library on Harvard's beautiful Cambridge campus. Once there, I was able to order up the boxes I had scoped out online. I ended up seeing not only a number of 19th and 20th-century toy theatres, but also a number of playbills for dramas associated with Lord Byron. I presented a paper on Byron during the second day of the conference, which was also when they had the society's awards ceremony.

Martyna Majok was presented with the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award for Queens. I've read Majok's play Ironbound, and her drama Cost of Living won the Pulitzer Prize this year. Needless to say, things have been going very well for her lately! She gave an excellent acceptance speech, but later the mood was darkened when Quiara Alegria Hudes gave the keynote address together with her sister Gabriela Sanchez. Hudes, who is herself a Pulitzer laureate, remarked that she has become so disenchanted with the theatre that she has decided to take a "break" from writing plays. As much as "inclusion" was a buzzword at the conference (and "diversity" was used like a comma), Hudes said she didn't really feel her point of view was welcome in the contemporary American theatre. As a woman, as a Latina, and as a person of faith, she felt excluded from mainstream theatre. "You mention God in a play," she said, "and they're like, 'You're kidding, right?'"

Well, it seems that is often the case. ATHE does have focus groups dedicated to looking at theatre and gender, race, and ethnicity, but not one dealing with class, and it did seem to me that discussions of the working class were noticeably absent at the conference. On the third day of the conference I went to the focus group meeting on theatre and religion (an issue Hudes addressed in her speech the previous day). I also presented a second paper on a panel sponsored by the group. It was great to meet other people interested in theatre and religion (many of them atheists, as it so happens, but who at least share an interest in exploring spirituality). A performance given on Saturday by History Alive spoke to the intersection of theatre and religion as well. Their interactive play Cry Innocent told the story of Bridget Bishop, the first person executed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials.

Sunday I woke up too late to go to any of the morning sessions at the conference, but instead went to church with Natalia and then to Revere to see the annual sand-and-flower mandala that is built on the beach and then washed away with the tide. It was a performance of a different kind, but one that I very much enjoyed.

Friday, August 3, 2018

ATHE, Day Three

Today, I went to the Theatre and Religion Focus Group meeting at the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. It was the start of a day dominated by those two topics: theatre and religion.

In the afternoon, there was a roundtable discussion of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Though the museum does have a theatre, the panelists were discussing museums as theatre. Though initially the museum aimed to evangelize, by the time it opened, its mission changed to simply informing people about the Bible. The general consensus of the panelists who had visited the museum was that the museum (while it could have been worse) celebrated the Bible's history without engaging with that history in a meaningful critical way,

After the roundtable, I presented my own paper, "Assassination Discovered: Revolutionary Implications of Revelation Scenes in Baillie's De Monfort and Coleridge's Remorse." The paper was part of a panel entitled "Catastrophe: Performance That Revolutionizes." I was happy to share the stage with Alley Edlebi, who spoke about Samuel Beckett, and Joy Palacios, who discussed the priest Jacques-Andre Emery. Joy's paper and mine were very much in conversation, since they were both about responses to the French Revolution.

Following my own panel, I went to hear a paper by Shiraz Biggie on poetry as performance among Irish immigrants. Also on her panel were Tova Markenson, who spoke about objections to Yiddish theatre in Argentina because of its alleged ties to prostitution, and Alicia Hernandez Grande, who delivered her paper via Skype on street protests of the Catalan independence movement. Rounding out the panel was Gina di Salvo, who spoke about court cases in Jacobean Britain over performances that were part of May Day and Twelfth Night celebrations.

The conference continues on Saturday and Sunday, but my papers are over, so I'm looking forward to attending the Theatre History Focus Group meeting and relaxing a bit!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

ATHE, Day Two

This was the second day of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Boston. I was very glad to get to the Religion and Theatre Emerging Scholars Panel, where my colleague Dan Poston presented a paper on Joseph Addison.

Also on the panel was Cate Heiner, who spoke on Tim Slover's play Virtue, about Hildegard of Bingen. Not surprisingly, the play's title comes from the name of Hildegard's own play, The Order of the Virtues. Plan B-Theatre Company debuted the play in Salt Lake City, and interestingly enough, that company also staged the play Facing East, which was the subject of another paper by Kristin Perkins.

My own paper "Byron's Dramatic Revolt" was later that day as a part of a session called "Unconventional Resistance on the European Stage." Greer Gerni coordinated that session, and also presented a paper on Yiddish theatre in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Madison Cortez spoke about Brian Friel's play The Freedom of the City, and Matthew McMahan talked on the late-19th-century circus act Footit and Chocolat.

I also attended the ATHE annual membership meeting and awards ceremony, and then got to see the keynote speakers, Quiara Alegria Hudes and her sister Gabriela Sanchez. They were quite entertaining, and quite moving.

Friday, I'll be giving another paper at 5:00. Perhaps I'll see you there!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Day One of ATHE

Today, I planned to go to an orientation session at the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Unfortunately, the session got moved to an earlier time slot, which I found disorienting.

Perhaps it was all for the best, because instead I went to a discussion on publishing an article in an academic journal. Jennifer Parker-Starbuck was there from Theatre Journal, along with Lisa Brenner from Theatre Topics, and R. Darren Gobert from Modern Drama.

Prof. Gobert mentioned that he keeps a close eye on the number of downloads articles in Modern Drama get. He said an insightful article on A Raisin in the Sun will always get lots of hits. I asked him what other plays generate the most traffic, and he said The Importance of Being Earnest, A Doll House, and Hedda Gabler.

Later I went to a session called "Playwrights, Revelation, and Revolution." Leigh Kennicott spoke about August Wilson and John O'Connor delivered a paper on Howard Brenton. Howard Einsohn, who I met briefly at the Shaw in New York Conference a few years ago, talked about Androcles and the Lion, a play I rather enjoyed when I saw it last summer in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The last speaker in the session was Elaine Molinaro, who showed pictures of the production of Paul Claudel's The Tidings Brought to Mary that she directed for Culture Connection Theater. It looked great. I wish I could have seen it!

Tomorrow, I present my paper on Lord Byron. Looking forward to it!

Monday, July 30, 2018

ATHE Conference This Week!

Why am I up so late packing? Because this week is the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

This year, the conference is in Boston, and I'll be delivering two different papers. The first one, "Byron's Dramatic Revolt," is a part of a session called "Unconventional Resistance on the European Stage." It's sponsored by the Theatre History Focus Group, and I'll be discussing Lord Byron's play Manfred. That will be at 4:00 on Thursday.

On Friday at 5:00, I'll be part of a session sponsored by the Religion and Theatre Focus Group called "Catastrophe: Performance That Revolutionizes." I'll be delivering a paper entitled "Assassination Discovered: Revolutionary Implications of Revelation Scenes in Baillie's De Monfort and Coleridge's Remorse." Our moderator will be Jill Stevenson, a colleague of mine at Marymount Manhattan College.

On Saturday, I'm going to try to see Cry Innocent, a play about the Salem Witch Trials presented by the Salem-based company History Alive. This is my first ATHE conference. We'll see how it goes!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

It Raineth (But Not Everyday)

The last couple of weeks in New York have been very... well... wet. That's not good for outdoor productions, and the last few performances of The Public Theater's Twelfth Night in the Delacorte in Central Park have been rather soggy.

Fortunately, last night was the exception. I lucked out and got to see the show during a clear evening, and it was phenomenal. The weather looks good for tonight, so you might want to try to get to the Delacorte early to see if you can get standby tickets. That's how I saw Othello earlier this summer, and I got in no problem.

There's no show on Monday, and Tuesday is opening night. After then, it's going to be considerably more difficult to get tickets. This production, the brainchild of singer-songwriter Shaina Taub and co-director Kwame Kwei-Armah, is destined to be legendary. Shakespeare's dialogue is condensed down to its essence, and Taub has penned some brilliant songs that perfectly capture the play's key moments.

The result is an original musical that is faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare's comedy while also creating something wonderful and new. Whether it's Olivia's household arguing over who is the worst, or Malvolio fantasizing about greatness, or the people of Illyria singing about the word on the street, the songs are always entertaining as well as advancing the storyline.

Taub, a veteran performer from the off-Broadway productions of Old Hats, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, and Hadestown, clearly knows what she's doing. In addition to providing the songs for Twelfth Night, she also plays a feisty Feste with perfect deadpan timing.

Oskar Eustis co-directed this production. The musical originally played the Delacorte for just one weekend back in 2016, so it's great to have it back for a full five-week run this summer. Its next stop will be London at the Young Vic, where Kwei-Armah is the incoming artistic director.

Will a Broadway production follow? One can hope, but my advice is not to wait. See it now!