Thoughts from “Stage the Future,” part II

One of my favorite presentations at Stage the Future was Carol Stewart‘s paper entitled “What’s My Motivation? Science Fiction Theater and the Constraints of Method Acting.”

This was right up my alley! Last fall I wound up assistant-directing the mini-opera for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. I was primarily in charge of the chorus, who were playing microbes who lived in the guts of the two leads. (The entire ceremony is here and the final act of the opera–the Revolt of the Microbes–begins at one hour and 27 minutes.) Trying to figure out the motivations of gut microbes–Stanislavski doesn’t really have much to help with that. That’s not what he meant when he said “Find the part inside yourself.”

Much of Carol’s paper centered around the Method-trained Leonard Nimoy as an example of the unsuitability of the Stanislavski approach to SF acting. Carol argued that the Method could not have provided an adequate framework for the creation of Spock as a character; that Method teachers never understood or respected Nimoy’s accomplishment; and that maybe if the Method hadn’t messed with his head, the poor man wouldn’t have had to write back-to-back books titled I Am Spock and I Am Not Spock.

Carol had an anecdote I’d never heard before: that Stanislavski used to bring a dog to rehearsals, and that the dog knew when people were done “acting” and would go wait by the door as soon as the actors dropped character. “Stanislavski set out to fool the dog.”

To fool the dog. If I ever write a book about acting, there’s my title.

In grad school, I wrote a couple of papers on the intertwined histories of method acting and psychoanalysis. The Method, at its beginning, was heavily influenced by Pavlov and the emerging science of psychology. When the technique came to the United States, for a variety of reasons, it became entwined, both intellectually and socially, with Freudian psychoanalysis.

But that was 100 years ago! In 2015, the science of human understanding has gone so much further, in so many directions that neither the couch nor the maze could have predicted. Psychology is no longer defined by the twin doctrines of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. We’ve seen so many extraordinary advances and insights from cvolutionary psychology, the cognitive revolution, neurobiology, narrative and cross-cultural psychology, and more subfields and interdisciplinary crossroads. Stanislavski’s great breakthrough–and for all I may snark at the excesses of the American Method, Stanislavski was one of the artistic giants of his not-too-shabby age–was fueled by the breakthroughs in psychology that were happening in his time. Psychology is still having breakthroughs. But who are the Stanislavskis of our age who are bringing psychological science into the theater?

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Thoughts from “Stage the Future,” part I

Earlier this month, I attended the second annual Stage the Future Conference on Science Fiction Theater at Arizona State University.

Among the artists who showed their work, my favorite was Miwa Matreyek, who does beautiful multimedia animations about the natural world and the human body. And she’s coming to the ICA here in Boston in April:

A newcomer to Boston, LA-based multimedia artist Miwa Matreyek combines animation, video installation, and performance for one-of-a-kind experiences that have appeared at international art centers and festivals including Sundance Film Festival. These two pieces combine stunningly lovely imagery with inventive movement and shadow play for works that are, as she says, ?at once semi-scientific (like flipping through a children?s encyclopedia), emotional, and dream-like, rich in surrealism, metaphor, and fantasy.


I’m definitely going to try to see more of her work. Tickets here.

The keynote address was given by ASU’s Thomas P. Seager, an engineering professor who specializing in sustainability and resilience, aka surviving very bad things. We need theater to teach us the skills required to survive VBTs–improvisation, creativity within constraints, collaboration–and science fiction can help us imagine both VBTs and their solutions. Increasingly, Dr. Seager pointed out, “We cannot predict the future by extrapolating from the past.” Change across many dimensions–climate, social, technological–is too fast and complex for that. We need the discipline and imagination of both science and the arts to move into the future.

ASU is all about that kind of art-and-science integration, which is why the conference met there. Part of what we talked about was the split in SF between utopian and dystopian visions of the future (or, if you’re a Bostonian, of the recent past). Famously, within a rather narrow and geeky definition of “fame,” ASU is where university president Michael Crow challenged SF author Neal Stephenson and his SF kinfolk to come up with brighter visions of the future. The resulting anthology is Hieroglyph. (Here are some good articles about the project.)

More to come …

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Sunday column: Fear of a quack planet edition

Today’s column is online here, and it’s a great question: what to do when a friend or acquaintance espouses a belief in quack medicine? I wish I had better news than this to share:

People’s beliefs, correct or incorrect, aren’t discrete silos of opinion. Your entirely correct, rational approach to medicine is intimately entwined with your upbringing, your self-image, your other opinions about science and ethics, and your social network. Mr. Snakeoil’s wrongheaded approach to medicine is similarly embedded. Correcting that belief isn’t like replacing one dead bulb on a string of fairy lights, it’s more like pulling a block out of a Jenga tower. You say Mr. Snakeoil’s quackery is sponsored by his church, too–well, as they say in the movies, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” A couple of Snopes links posted on Facebook is not going to undo a belief that is an intimate part of a person’s religion and social support system. All you’ve done is given Mr. Snakeoil a thumbnail image of what an unenlightened heathen looks like. It’s possible you’ve strengthened his resolve.

But unfortunately, there’s too much evidence suggesting that, well, evidence isn’t all that convincing to many people much of the time.

Incidentally, I have only ever played one game of Jenga in my life, and yet I use it as a metaphor all the time.

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“From the Deep” & science-fiction theater

Sunday I saw “From the Deep,” a new play by Cassie M. Seinuk that’s being produced by Boston Public Works. It’s a vividly staged two-hander set not in any literal place or time but in the shared mental space of two different men being held captive for different reasons–an Israeli soldier held hostage by a Palestinian group, and a Boston college student kidnapped for reasons that aren’t made immediately clear. The captives’ situations are realistic–the Israeli, in fact, is based on Gilad Shalit–the only science-fictional element is the creation of the mental world shared by the two men.

Boston Spirit Magazine raved about the play:

Seldom has this reviewer seen a play set in a parallel universe, created entirely from the playwright?s imagination, transcend the genre of science fiction or the theater of the absurd. But like the best of Harold Pinter, that Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Seinuk and her cast and crew of this production have created a riveting theatrical experience. The audience not only clutches their seats to find out the final outcome of the two trapped men but also hangs onto their every sentence of dialog to learn how they come together to cope and hopefully overcome their similar yet totally different dilemmas.

… but dang, bro, can a reviewer ever mention science fiction (in any medium) without immediately disavowing it or explaining how the work under question “transcend(s) the genre”? “Transcend” is to art what “toleration” is to people. You don’t have to learn to “tolerate” a group if you really truly don’t think there’s anything wrong with them to begin with. An artist doesn’t have to “transcend” a genre if there’s nothing wrong with that genre to begin with.

But in the badly-remembered-by-me words of Kurt Vonnegut, “the science-fiction drawer is the drawer critics mistake for a urinal.”

Cassie’s review reminded me of something playwright Walt McGough wrote me when I contacted him about my presentation at Stage the Future. I was curious how audiences had responded to “Chalk,” a similar drama with two characters, a confining and obstacle-ridden set, and strong emotional content. Walt wrote:

One thing I definitely noticed, in the few reviews we got, was that all of the reviewers seemed to feel the need to lay the sci-fi side of things out up front, and take a stand on it, within the first few paragraphs. We got a lot of “I don’t usually like zombie stuff, but,” or “I’m not the audience for this because I don’t like sci-fi. That said…” So in a weird way, I felt like reviewers felt more of a need to apologize for the genre of the play than I (or the production team) ever did. Who knows if that’s just my biased perception, but it was definitely something present in all of the reviews.

SF! It stands for “science fiction,” not “sorry, folks.” It’s the 21st century and the geeks have inherited the earth. Let’s stop apologizing for it!

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“Grounded” and life on the screen

Last week I saw “Grounded” at Central Square Theater, which runs through this weekend. You should go! It’s a brilliant play, and the actress, Celeste Oliva, is a revelation.

Celeste Oliva. Photo by A. R. Sinclair Photography.

I might not have even gone myself if I hadn’t had season tickets. The plot–an Air Force fighter pilot is grounded because of her pregnancy and is put to work piloting drone strikes–didn’t grab me. But the script, by George Brant, transcends the topic. As I said on Twitter, whatever you think the play is about, it’s more than that.

One of the major themes was how much of our lives is under surveillance and/or on screen. The pilot’s targets are on screen, of course, close enough that she can see their identifying characteristics. Her husband, a blackjack dealer, works under cameras to ensure he doesn’t steal. She refers to their evening television as “another hour of screen.”

One of the conversations I had and heard a lot at the Stage the Future conference–and over the past year in general life–is why science fiction and science in pop culture? What’s with the current rise of these genres?

Because they reflect what modern life is, I suspect. We live on the screen. Often alone but with no privacy. The news gets more surreal every day. The lines between nations and peoples and corporations blur. The line between media and reality blurs. We don’t understand the future we are preparing our children for. How can we not be telling stories of science and science fiction?

“Grounded” isn’t science-fictional, or even especially technical. It’s a straightforward, ripped-from-the-headlines drama. But it still digs into the difficulty of making sense of reality when so much of it is spent in cubicles, staring at screens. Of the difficulty of knowing who to empathize with: Are you more like the people who believe what you do, or the people who do what you do? Do you have more in common with your colleagues or your spouse? What do you owe your child compared to what you owe the world’s children? Who is your tribe and why?

And can you fool your brain into thinking what’s on the screen is real only when you want it to be? That it’s people when you want to feel connected with people, and pixels when you don’t?

This is what I noticed, because I’m me. I saw the play with a friend of mine who is a mother and a lawyer, and she heard other notes, notes that resonated with her perspective and experience. The script was that good.

Buy tickets here.

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Sunday column: Complications edition

Today’s column is online here. Both questions were juicy ones: How can you tell when an adoptive family is isolating themselves, and is it okay to comment on strangers’ public posts on Facebook?

I get a lot of questions like these, where it’s not about right or wrong, or how to have a difficult conversation, but about being comprehensible to others. If I do X, how will people interpret it? If someone has done Y to me, should I take that as a compliment or an insult?

“Etiquette” is a polarizing word, I’ve found. There’s a faction who insist that the purpose of etiquette is exclusion and codifying class and gender roles, and there’s a faction who insist that etiquette is simply empathy and kindness. (I doubt people aren’t so simple as to think that etiquette is really, truly all one and not the other, but many folks feel in their bones that it is even if they rationally know better.) Both of those analyses have their share of truth, but I think the essential function of etiquette is communication technology: giving us a set of words and behaviors (handshakes, thank-you notes, hostess gifts, Facebook likes) to communicate our intent and desires to other people. To make ourselves comprehensible.

My editor usually writes a little tagline for the end of the column, urging readers to write in with problems of their own. This week, he wrote, “NEED HELP UNDERSTANDING SEEMINGLY ODD BEHAVIOR OF FRIENDS OR FAMILY? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at” I can’t wait to see what’s in my inbox Monday!

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Sunday column: Mourning edition

Yeah, I see what I did there.

I got two wonderful questions about opposite sides of the mourning dilemma: How do you handle a large outpouring of cards, flowers, and so on, and what do you do when people didn’t come through as you hoped? I answered them both here. I’m very proud of this one, if I say so myself:

The death of people we love is freaky like a tornado. You expect loss and devastation once the storm has passed. But while much is destroyed, much more is simply, and disturbingly, displaced. The construction workers? Porta John is now inside the dining room. The children?s treehouse now sports a Dunkin? Donuts sign.

Similarly, when you are in mourning, fury or glee or startling clarity may flood your mind at the most incongruous moments. Psychologically, the trick is to stay open to genuine insight and personal change while not mistaking every emotional spasm for an epiphany.

And so on.

Coincidentally, there is another piece in the magazine by Roberta Waters, titled “A Grieving Mom’s Request,” about exactly that–what the friends of a bereaved parent should know. Check it out:

blockquote>My loss is not contagious. You shouldn?t be scared to be with me. Any discomfort you initially feel should subside if you give it a chance and give me a chance. If you are planning an evening out, a lunch date, a getaway, please make an extra effort to include me. I often feel like a pariah. My intention is not to ?bring you down,? and I do my best not to burden anyone with my sadness. Don?t feel awkward inviting me to have some ?fun,? and don?t assume I won?t want to join in, so why even bother asking. I may often decline, but it is comforting to be included. Being excluded is killing me.

Slow posting because I was at Stage the Future, the second annual conference on science-fiction theater, all weekend. Yeah baby! It was fantastic. Highlights to come!

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Sunday column: Meaty conversation edition

Today’s column is online here. When do you complain about an imprecise butcher? And can a boring dinner companion be ignored in favor of, er, meatier conversation elsewhere?

The letters section features several people disagreeing with my advice from a few weeks back to a family with disabled kids who were taken aback by having their dinner tab picked up. I knew no one would agree with that! Also, a priest writes in to say that no matter what Miss Conduct thinks, it is perfectly appropriate to have a Mass said for a dead atheist.

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Leonard Nimoy, RIP

As you’ve probably heard, Leonard Nimoy died today at the age of 83. My memorial tribute is in xoJane:

There was nothing I wanted quite so desperately as a child as to be grown up, despite the fact that grownups were opaque and dull. They carried the immense power and privilege of adulthood and seemed not to even realize it, let alone appreciate it, let alone glory in it. Why were they so consumed with trivialities? Why were they not thinking big thoughts and doing big things? Maturity is wasted on the mature, my childhood self believed.

And then, “Star Trek,” serendipitously encountered in reruns, in the pre-cable television landscape of my youth. Now these were grownups. Arguing moral dilemmas, accomplishing difficult tasks. Strong and beautiful and disciplined.

And Spock was the most grown-up of them all. He was always right. He was always calm. When he applied the Vulcan neck pinch he didn’t drop his unconscious victims like a thug, he caught them and lowered them gently down, even if they had hurt him. “Love your enemy,” I heard people say, but they never said what that might look like. Like Spock’s combat style, nine-year-old me decided.

The rest is here.


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“Parks & Recreation” ends tonight!

… so I joined Jaclyn Friedman on her “Fucking While Feminist” podcast to talk about romance and friendship on that amazing show. Listen up and get yourself ready for what’s going to be a tearjerking finale.

Today is also Twin Peaks Day. Combine the two and TreatYoSelf to a slice of pie and a damn fine cup of coffee while you listen to our strong, beautiful musk ox of a podcast.


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Two things “Better Call Saul” gets right

First off, “Better Call Saul,” the brand-new prequel to “Breaking Bad,” gets way more than two things right. It’s a brilliant show, and I can’t imagine how satisfying it must be for creator Vince Gilligan. You know how at the end of every project, no matter how successful it was, there are things you wish you could have done differently? I’m sure Gilligan felt that way at the end of “Breaking Bad.” He’d learned things doing that show, about himself as a director, about the fictional Albuquerque he created. In “Better Call Saul,” he essentially gets a do-over. He can apply all those lessons learned.


In the second episode, Jimmy (this is Saul’s original name; viewers don’t as yet know how or why Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman) shows up at the wrong house and gets dragged inside with a gun to his face by the terrifying and violent Tuco. Jimmy launches into a long monologue to convince Tuco that he is no threat and please to let him go, and at one point says, “I’m not sure if this is a situation where I should or should not look you in the eye.”

First, it’s mildly hilarious that Jimmy is so aware of his internal processes, especially with a gun in his face. It’s a great reveal into who the character is.

Second, this is a one-sentence summary of a point I made in my 10th-anniversary piece last week: “Etiquette has an evolutionary basis. Like all social animals, humans question how to find mates, raise kids, get their fair share to eat, and resolve conflicts. If you?re a chimpanzee or a wolf, your biology gives you the answers. If you?re a human, you write to an advice columnist.” Jimmy wants to signal cooperation and submission, but most body language in humans isn’t hardwired. We negotiate what a given gesture or posture means. The meaning of eye contact among other animals is mutually understood. Not among human animals.

This made me think of a New Yorker article that came out after the Louise Woodward trial. Ms. Woodward was an English au pair convicted of manslaughter in 1997. Much was made of her furtive, guilty-looking body language on the stand. But Jonathan Raban, an Englishman living in America, saw it differently:

My English eyes saw one thing; my American-resident eyes saw something else altogether. With one pair, I was for acquittal; with the other, I was for conviction. Shoulders hunched submissively forward, eyes lowered, voice a humble whisper, Ms. Woodward made a good impression as an English church mouse. Her whole posture announced that she knew her place? Her deferential body language was nicely spoken, in the old-fashioned accent of the English class system. I thought she was telling the truth. Then I looked again. I have lived long enough in this country to know that when you tell the truth in America you stand up straight, you throw your shoulders back, you meet your interlocutor squarely in the eye and speak out plainly. My second pair of eyes saw Ms. Woodward as sullen, masked, affectless, dissembling. Her evasive body language clearly bespoke the fact that she was keeping something of major importance hidden from the court. I thought she was telling lies.

It is very hard to be human, no?

The difficulty of being human–particularly, a working human–is the second thing that “Better Call Saul” gets right. “Breaking Bad” got this right, too: how bloody inconvenient everything is. How it’s really hard to get people on the phone, or to sync up schedules, or get the resources you need to do your job. How hard it is to feel productive when you spend so much time dealing with interruptions or waiting around for someone or something. Most shows about work do not show this. They show people briskly snapping, “Walk with me!” and discussing work problems en route from a briefing to a press conference. They show cops who have to call every mechanic in town starting with AAA and then cut to the call to Paco’s Chopshop that reveals the location of the stolen vehicle. They don’t show the false starts, the hours on hold, the time spent downloading a new version of whatever it is you do your work on. They don’t acknowledge Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” Granted, this isn’t the mission of procedurals like “Law & Order: SVU” or even the nuanced “The Good Wife,” shows where a major portion of the appeal is that stuff happens, and happens at a fast clip. “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” however, aren’t playing that particular kind of wish-fulfillment game. They portray work as it is for most of us: tedious chores and a lot of waiting around, interspersed with moments of insight and/or panic.

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Sunday column: Ti-MING edition

A friend of mine recently reminded me of how our high-school drama teacher used to say, “Ti-MING!” with the accent on the last syllable when people blew a cue. I feel like my tiMING might have been a little off with today’s column. I write the columns a couple of weeks in advance, because that’s how the magazine deadlines work. And there was way less snow on the ground when I wrote this than there is now. The bizarre maneuver described by the LW–her neighbor “moves each of his two cars in front of our driveway and clears the snow from them there”–probably isn’t even possible with the amount of snow we’ve got out there. I hope I didn’t strike the wrong tone.

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Sunday column: Extravaganza edition!

I was locked out of WordPress earlier in the week, so last Sunday’s column is here if you missed it. One of the questions dealt with what to do with a dead parent’s Facebook page. A couple of days after that column, Facebook announced a new initiative to allow people to designate a kind of online executor for themselves. I had no idea Facebook followed Miss Conduct so closely! Hey, Facebook: I would like to see all my friends’ updates, in the order in which they wrote them, and nothing else. Got it? Yay.

So much for last week. THIS week marks my 10-year anniversary as Miss Conduct! I have a giant feature here: How I became Miss Conduct, what I’ve learned, advice I regret, why people write to advice columnists, and what’s changed and what hasn’t over the past 10 years. (A friend of mine who is the parent of a 10-year-old said that she found the piece useful for understanding what the world might look like to her son.)

Finally, today’s column is online here. It’s a terrific question that combines the hot themes of kids in restaurants, disability etiquette, the “pay it forward” trend, and “who’s right?”-style marital conflict.

Happy reading!

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Sunday column: Belated behind-the-scenes edition

Yesterday’s column is online here, and it’s buzzy little beast, with questions about what to do with a friend who will never shut up, and if Christians can have a mezuzah.

The second one was a struggle to answer. Personally? I’d be somewhat put off to see a mezuzah on the door of an acquaintance I know is not Jewish. It’s appropriation. But all of Christianity is an appropriation of Judaism, and you can either let that drive you insane, or not.

(Side note: When my Jewish husband and half-Jewish landlord installed our mezuzah, they “left the receipt with the Hebrew on it on the table in case you wanted to keep it.”)

And the letter from the person whose “friend” talks too much? I’d be so terribly curious to hear the other side of that one. The original letter was a good 300 words or so–much, much too long to go in the column unedited, and I always do wonder about people who do that. Then I got two follow-up emails asking for various details to be changed, and if I could please answer the question by a certain date, and also send it to the LW personally because she can’t always find me in the paper.

I’m not sure all the problem is on the other side, is what I’m saying.

Happy Monday! Go Pats, and yeah, Phil, we know. More winter.

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Sunday column: Kids and art edition

Today’s column is online here. I’m working on a story for my 10-year anniversary as Miss Conduct–!!!–about what’s changed and what’s stayed the same regarding etiquette and advice. One thing in my “stay the same” category is that issues regarding kids and childraising cause a lot of stress. (My favorite book for explaining why that is is Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.)

I especially liked the second question:

I recently went to see a critically acclaimed movie, which I hated. I didn’t walk out because I didn’t want to be rude or feel I hadn’t given it a full try. There were two children seated in front of me with their parents. The younger boy was maybe 7, the older perhaps 12. I felt horrible that they were watching scenes of attempted rape and listening to massive swearing from mean, dysfunctional people. Should I have said something to the parents, letting them know that I thought rape and misogyny might be inappropriate for their kids?

What do you think the movie was? The LW didn’t say.

I wonder what the kids took from the movie, especially the seven-year-old. How much did he even comprehend? Recently on Facebook some of my contemporaries and I were recounting our memories of the 1976 made-for-television movie “Sybil.” Our preteen selves were horrified, fascinated … and completely uncomprehending. It’s always hard to tell what kids are taking in from the swirl of stories and images around them.

It bothered me that the LW thought it would be “rude” to walk out on a movie. It’s so illogical, and betrays either the sunk-cost fallacy, or the belief that we somehow owe something to art. We do!–I hasten to add. In fact I’m working on a column in my head about what, exactly, people “owe art.” But nobody owes appreciation or attention to any one particular work of art. There’s too much of it and life is too short.

Are there any particular genres or topics that you’ve decided life is too short for? I don’t do movies (or plays) about the Holocaust. Just nope. I tend in general to avoid movies about historical–or contemporary–atrocities. And the more a movie is talked about as though it’s some kind of moral duty to see it, that if you don’t see this flick you obviously don’t care about the issue itself–boy, that is just guaranteed to keep me away from the theater.

How about you?

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