“Her Aching Heart” and the science of romance (novels)

July 21st, 2014

Last night I dreamed I went to Central Square Theater again …

… because “Her Aching Heart” was so darn funny the first time (Globe review here). Aimee Rose Ranger and Lynn Guerra play modern-day urbanistas cautiously falling in love with each other while reading a gothic romance about a tempestuous English lady and the innocent peasant girl who sparks her affections. Only the occasional phone call or song hint at the present moment–most of the show is dedicated to the two actresses playing all the parts in the lesbian bodice-ripper. (Aimee’s bluff, rapey Lord Rothermere and Lynn’s palsied Granny, full of incomprehensible forest wisdom and whole-body tics, were my favorites.) Yes, I know it sounds stupidly complicated, but it’s not, really. If you liked the movie parodies Carol Burnett used to do, you’ll like this.


(Lynn Guerra and Aimee Rose Ranger in “Her Aching Heart,” A.R. Sinclair photography)

The romance parody in “Her Aching Heart” inspired me to dig up my dissertation, which was on the psychology of literary genre. I was curious to know if people had expectations about stories that went beyond surface characteristics (e.g., if it’s in the future, it’s science fiction, if there’s a murder, it’s a mystery). I asked participants to rate 10 different genres, including romance, classics, science fiction, and fantasy, across 16 different dimensions.

Here’s a graph showing how “romance” (in red, natch) differs in people’s imagination from ordinary fiction (in black):

People perceive romance as dumber, basically–I said that in a fancier way in the actual dissertation, of course, but I think my advisers knew what I meant. Romance is seen as more predictable, simpler, upbeat, emotional, and fantasy-based than regular fiction: It’s written for money and read for fun. No wonder it’s so delightfully easy to parody! We don’t even feel bad about making fun of romance novelists, because we assume as long as they’re making bank they don’t care about critical opinion.

I did my dissertation in 2002, and I wonder how “romance” would be defined in today’s imagination. That’s the tricky bit about trying to scientifically study a cultural phenomenon like literary genre–it keeps changing on you. In 2002, I would occasionally encounter people who didn’t know what “genre” meant, because it was still a lit-crit term, and wasn’t how iTunes and Amazon and Netflix preferred to organize your content and sell you more. Romance-wise, 2002 was before “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Gray” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” Would these dark offerings lead college students today to rate romance as a more pessimistic, complicated (if not intellectual) genre?

Sunday column: Performers are people

June 8th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. This is the second question, and the beginning of my answer:

At a concert in a small venue, when the artist asks for requests, is it rude to request a well known cover by the artist as opposed to one of his original songs? Assuming the cover by the artist is relatively popular as a recording but is obviously not his own music.
R.J. Canton, OH

Miss Conduct wants to throw flowers and bravos at you, R.J. for your understanding that live performers are human beings, and not meat-based streaming platforms for music and spoken-word poetry. Live music, theater, or comedy should be seen as a social event, not as a consumer experience.

I wrote this column shortly after reading a piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books in which the author gets himself trapped–temporarily, but for much longer than he, or you, or the Supreme Court’s legal fiction of the “reasonable person,” would ever desire–at a dreadful avant garde production of “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” I clicked on the article expecting a hurr durr, experimental theater is stoopid screed, but it was a good deal smarter than that.

The performing arts are inherently social in a way that, say, literature and painting aren’t, because the artists are right there in the room with you. They can see you. This creates a certain pressure to conform to social norms–having Capt’n Crunch staring at you can affect your behavior, never mind Blanche DuBois–including sticking around and acting like you’re paying attention at least until intermission. And this can open audiences up to artistic experiences they might not otherwise have.

Parks points out that not every work of art is instantly pleasing. Some take time to get into. In a museum or gallery, there is no social pressure to continue to gaze at a painting that doesn’t immediately thrill your eye. You glance and move on. Imagine if the artists were all standing next to their work, though! You’d feel bad to do that. So you’d look at everything longer, and maybe ask a few questions to be nice. (This is what the “poster sessions” of scientific conferences are like.) You might end up developing a great and genuine fondness for some paintings that didn’t grab you at all at first.

Theater does exert that social pressure:

In the theater on the other hand the flesh-and-blood presence of the actors, good or bad as they may be, creates a sense of reality and immediacy, a heightened state of attention. Having paid for your seat, having promised yourself a special evening, and finding yourself sitting in the middle of a long row beside others who have also paid and promised themselves a special evening, others whom you imagine have similar interests to your own, people willing to spend time and money supporting avant-garde culture, a community almost—in these circumstances you are probably always going to hang on at least thirty minutes, however bewildered and sceptical you may be. And thirty minutes should be enough for Beckett’s enchantments to begin to work. Simply the emotional experience of being in the theater, the sense of occasion, the positive atmosphere of people engaging in an intellectual pursuit together, provides the necessary momentum for tackling the great enigma of Beckett’s work.

Park’s column influenced my choice of and answer to that question, and then after I’d turned it in, this happened:

An actor in a Santa Clarita, Calif. production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was fired Saturday after physically removing a heckler in the audience who lobbed anti-gay slurs at the cast for nearly half of the show.

John Lacy, who played Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ classic play that tackles homophobia among other themes, was fired after jumping off stage and physically confronting an audience member who repeatedly made noise and yelled “fag” during emotionally tense scenes, according to audience members’ accounts of the incident on Facebook.

The show apparently continued following the confrontation and concluded to a standing ovation. Lacy was apparently not let go until after the performance.

OH HELL NO.

Where in the name of Joseph Papp was the producer? The front-of-house management? The stage manager? Mr. Lacy should not have escalated–responding to words with hands is never the right thing to do–but he was absolutely in the right to do something, and the fact that he chose an unwise something is not on him. A person who is disrupted in the middle of a task that requires 100% of their emotional, physical, and intellectual energy is not wholly responsible for how they respond to that disruption. Mr. Lacy should have been protected by management, and since he wasn’t, there is no way in hell that he should have been punished for protecting his fellow actor, the dignity of his craft, and the rest of the audience’s right to enjoy the play in peace. (There has been, if not a happy ending, at least a silver lining to the whole story reported here.)

This story enraged me, because it seems less about an isolated case of extremely bad theater etiquette than it does part of a whole complex of entitlement. Every student who has ever demanded a grade as though that is what tuition pays for. Every customer who thinks they’re always right. Every blog commenter who whines that the blogger isn’t writing about what they, the commenter, thinks is important.

The customer isn’t always right.
The customer isn’t always even a customer.
Sometimes the customer is a participant.

And that is a much bigger and better thing to be. Live up to it.

Why actors love him

June 23rd, 2011

Mr. Improbable sent me a link to this June 14 article in the journal Medical Humanities:

Body-conscious Shakespeare: sensory disturbances in troubled characters.

Abstract
It is widely accepted that Shakespeare was unique in the range of his insights into the human mind, but the way his characters reveal their mental states through bodily sensations has not been systematically explored. The author has searched for these phenomena in the 42 major works of Shakespeare and in 46 genre-matched works by his contemporaries, and in this paper the author focuses on sensory changes other than those involving vision, taste, the heart and the alimentary tract (all considered in other papers). Vertigo is experienced by five distressed Shakespearean characters, all men, but not at all by the other writers’ characters. Breathlessness, probably representing hyperventilation, occurs eleven times in Shakespeare’s works but only twice in the other writers’ works. Fatigue, expressing grief, is articulated by several Shakespearean characters including Hamlet. It features less often in the others’ works. Deafness at a time of high emotion is mentioned by Shakespeare several times but usually by a character ‘turning a deaf ear’, consciously or unconsciously. To the other writers, ears show emotion only by burning or itching. Blunting of touch and pain and their opposites of hypersensitivity to touch and pain are all to be found in Shakespeare’s works when a character is distressed or excited, but not so with his contemporaries’ works. Faint feelings and cold feelings are also more common in the works of Shakespeare. Overall, therefore, Shakespeare was exceptional in his use of sensory disturbances to express emotional upset. This may be a conscious literary device or a sign of exceptional awareness of bodily sensations.

I haven’t read the full article, but the abstract sums it up pretty well. The author, Kenneth W. Heaton, also wrote a piece for the British Medical Journal on “Faints, fits, and fatalities from emotion in Shakespeare’s characters.

This is why actors love Shakespeare. For all the complexity of his language, and for all the infinite interpretations that can be made of his characters, he is not abstract. He is the paragon of animals, the prince of the body. He writes in blood and bone.

Theater ethics

June 17th, 2011

No Twitter feed this week, as I’ve not been in a tweeting state of mind. However, take a look at this wonderful “Code of Ethics for the Theater,” circa 1945 (brought to my attention by Alison Klejna of Central Square Theater). We should all have such a sense of honor and teamwork and dignity in and about our workplaces:

Since I respect the theatre in which I work, I shall do my best to keep it looking clean, orderly and attractive regardless of whether I am specifically assigned to such work or not.

I shall handle stage properties and costumes with care for I know they are part of the tools of my trade and are a vital part of the physical production.

I shall follow rules of courtesy, deportment and common decency applicable in all walks of life (and especially in a business in close contact with the public) when I am in the theatre, and I shall observe the rules and regulations of any specific theatre where I work.

I shall never lose my enthusiasm for theatre because of disappointments.

This list, adjusted for the industry, is also excellent advice for those going into their first jobs. Who wouldn’t want a co-worker who followed the advice above?

The mystery revealed!

May 27th, 2011

So those mysterious pictures I posted last week? Wouldn’t you like to know more? Here’s the scoop:

Ben Evett, the founder of Actors’ Shakespeare Project, is starting a new theatrical venture. It’s called “Blood Rose Rising.” This is an experiment in serialized theater – a theater company in which each new play will be a chapter in an ongoing story.

The story of “Blood Rose Rising” is that of Robert and Olivia, two young Bostonians from Brahmin families. Olivia is an ambitious young attorney who wants to make it to the state senate as an old name representing a fresh start. Her fiance, Robert, is a community-college history professor, a bit of a lost soul who has just inherited the decaying family house from his estranged father. And then there is Rose. Rose is very beautiful. And very tormented. And very dead.

And Robert might just be falling in love with her. What a pity that the lovely ghost only appears when blood is spilled. Somewhat dangerous for one’s fiancee’s political ambitions. And for one’s sanity.

Ben and Steven Barkhimer wrote the scripts, and they are sexy and funny and spooky and very, very Bostonian. (The scripts.) A few weeks ago, we put on not-quite-full-scale workshop productions of the first three episodes, and that’s what these pictures are from. I wore the “Mrs. Danvers” dress from our Midwinter Macabre party, and introduced the show in a persona that Ben described as “Mistress of Dark Ceremonies” and our marketing guru called “the demented Diana Rigg.”

As of now, we are planning to bring this live around February 2012. I’ll keep you informed as things progress. Local folks, if this is anywhere near as good as I think it’s going to be — then it’s going to be really, really good, that’s what.

Bloody good.

Some more workshop shots:


The mystery deepens

May 19th, 2011

… so that’s who the mysterious woman in the mirror is. But why is she there?

And speaking of stories …

May 11th, 2011

I’m going to be leading a talkback for “Table Manners” at Arlington Friends of Drama this Sunday. Share your own dinner-table memories on my other blog, and I’ve still got two tickets to give away to the first person who asks!

Improbable Science shows next week!

April 27th, 2011

As part of the Cambridge Science Festival, Mr. Improbable will be putting on two shows at Central Square Theater next week. Do you like things (and people, and songs) that first make you laugh and then make you think? Then join us! Here’s the deets:

Scientists (and Friends) Sing Improbable Science Songs
Monday night, May 2, 7:30 pm

A benefit for the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT Science Theater Project

Some of the world’s great scientists (and some friends from the Boston area’s theater and music communities) perform songs by Tom Lehrer, songs from the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony mini-operas, and other beloved, and hated, purportedly funny songs about science, including: New Math, Pollution; Poisoning Pigeons in the Park; Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Dress; the mini-opera Atom & Eve; The Coffee Diet, and much more!

Performers include:
Frank Wilczek (Nobel physics prize winner) & Teresa Winner Blume (soprano), Deborah Henson-Conant (jazz harpist, Museum of Burnt Food), Debra Wise (Underground Railway Theater), Ben Sears & Brad Conner (cabaret), and many more!

Improbable Research After Dark
Saturday night, May 7, 11 pm (After “Breaking the Code“)

A benefit for the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT Science Theater Project and Improbable Research

Dramatic, 2-minute-long readings of Ig Nobel Prize-winning studies and patents, performed by some of the Boston area’s leading scientists, actors, and journalists. These are studies that make people laugh, then think. Studies include: “Effect of Coca-Cola on Sperm Motility”, “Farting as a Defense Against Unspeakable Dread,” “The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow,” “Homosexual Necrophilia in the Mallard Duck,” and many more.

Warning: Do not come to this event if you are easily offended by anything.

TICKETS: $15/$30 online here or call 866-811-4111

Don’t those sound fun? If you wanted to make it a full night of science theater, you could also attend the brilliant, brilliant performance of “Breaking the Code” before the Saturday show. It’s a play about the life of Alan Turing, a British mathematician considered the father of modern computing. Mr. Turing helped break the Nazi’s Enigma code in World War II, only to be hounded to his death by the forces of intolerance at home.

Dressing for the theater

February 15th, 2011

On Sunday Mr. Improbable and I went to see “Ti-Jean and His Brothers” at Central Square Theater. It’s a wonderful show!

And though I was excited to see it, I was even more excited that the sidewalks were clear enough to wear non-weather boots, specifically, this fun pair of cowboy boots I bought on eBay:

This entire outfit–boots, dress, cardigan–came from eBay. I bought the fiber-art necklace on Etsy and the tights are from We Love Colors. The bangles are from World Market.

“Ti-Jean” is set in the Caribbean, and if it hadn’t been for the weather, I’d have tried to wear something more … island-y. I believe in dressing up for the theater: in the performing arts, the audience is part of the experience, and I want to be a good part of yours. At the very least, I do not want to actively detract from the aesthetic experience. This, I think, is basic theater etiquette. Where I like to go a little above and beyond that is in trying to actually dress a bit in the spirit of the play. Not so’s it looks like I wandered out of the greenroom by mistake, but–well, this would have been an outfit I’d more likely wear to “Oklahoma!” or perhaps “Of Mice and Men.” The Russian shawl when seeing Chekhov, red lipstick and slicked-down hair for “Cabaret,” flamboyant colors and “statement jewelry” for “Taming of the Shrew,” and so on.

It’s my thing.

My stage debut

October 21st, 2010

How’s your Halloween weekend shaping up? If you have no plans for next Friday night, come see me in “The Big Broadcast of 1946,” a live radio extravaganza at the Somerville Theater in Davis Square. The show runs October 28-31 (Thursday through Saturday evenings; Sunday matinee) and the Friday, October 29 performance will star your very own Miss Conduct in the illustrious role of “Bar Patron.” (Since the show is set in 1946, I’ll be rocking the Rosie the Riveter look.)

Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.

Except for the two comps I have, which are free! I’m going to give these to the first person who asks. The tickets are good for any performance, though of course I hope you’ll come see mine!. And, on the honor system, if you’ve won tickets before, let someone else have a chance. (If they’re not gone in a day or two I’ll open it up to everyone.)

And if you have no plans on Halloween night itself, come to W00tstock! Mr. Improbable will be an entertainer there, and I’ll be in my flapper gear. We’re not quite sure what W00tstock is, but we’re looking forward to it!

You say goodbye, and I say hello

October 13th, 2010

I’m running a contest on my Miss Conduct blog to win tickets to Central Square Theater’s production of “Moon for the Misbegotten.” What are your best stories of hellos and goodbyes, of meetings and farewells? Tell me!

Advice-a-palooza redux!

June 7th, 2010

Meredith Goldstein of the Globe’s “Love Letters” column and I had such a good time at Central Square Theater’s Ann Landers play “The Lady with All the Answers” last month, and our pre-show discussion went so well, that the theater has invited us back for an encore performance!

We’ll be doing another appearance this Saturday, June 12. The show starts at 8pm and the discussion starts at 7. The theater has a nice snack bar with tea, coffee, soft drinks, beer and wine, so you can grab a beverage and join us for a nice dish about the advice business. How would you answer some of Ann’s classic questions?

I have two tickets to give away, so go the Monday question on my boston.com blog and leave a comment if you want to go — I’ll pick a winner at random* and announce it at 5pm on Tuesday.

*As someone trained in the social sciences, if there’s one thing I can do, it’s random selection.

Fun event next Saturday

May 7th, 2010

Meredith Goldstein, of the popular “Love Letters” blog, and I are doing an event next Saturday at Central Square Theater in conjunction with their production of “The Lady with All the Answers,” a play about Ann Landers.

lady2_web
(Actress Stephanie Clayman, photograph by Elizabeth Stewart/Libberding Photography.)

Meredith and I will be doing a symposium before the play, at 7:00 pm (the play starts at 8:00) and a post-performance reception at Rendezvous restaurant. Join us for a fun evening!

You can buy tickets online. I’ve also got two seats that I’ll be giving away on Monday on my boston.com blog.

I hope to see you there!

… and on the topic of pregnant women

April 9th, 2010

What is with all this Shakespearean nonsense about Macduff not having been “of woman born”? McSweeney’s puts that lie to the test:

MACDUFF: I was extracted surgically, in an operation.

MACBETH: Okay, but thou wast still born, right?

MACDUFF: No. Untimely ripped.

MACBETH: Okay, but after thou wast ripped, thou wast of woman born.

Theater ticket giveaway contest!

March 16th, 2010

I’ve got a fun contest on the boston.com blog to win two tickets to Central Square Theater’s brand-new production of “From Orchids to Octopi,” a play about Charles Darwin, running March 31-May 1. Go enter! I look forward to hearing what your oh-so-evolved brains come up with.