Miss Conduct talkback (and discount code!) for CST’s “Arabian Nights”

December 8th, 2014


Cast of ARABIAN NIGHTS. Photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography.

Central Square Theater, known for its science-themed plays, offers a change of pace with “The Arabian Nights.” This is their traditional holiday/family show, and it’s absolutely wonderful, ingeniously designed and engineered. Look at that gorgeous roc!

I’ll be doing a talkback after this Thursday’s performance, about storytelling and leadership. Blog readers can get 20% of tickets to all performances (but come Thursday! and stay for my enlightening, entertaining, and brief talk!) with the discount code ROBIN.

I hope to see you there!

Scheduling problems

November 28th, 2014

A friend of mine posted on Facebook earlier this week,

Why do all the theater companies in Greater Boston do all their “family friendly” stuff in November and December? Most of it isn’t even holiday-related. Don’t they know there’s a vast expanse of time from January to May, which is when families actually have time and are looking for stuff to do?

What a great question! Theater companies ought to take it under consideration. So should you, as the artistic director of your own life, when you’re making social plans. Everyone’s booked solid in December, and then come long, dark January and February, with no real holidays and no special events and very few people traveling. Those are great months to throw parties! Don’t send your invites until after Christmas, though, or they’ll disappear into the general slush pile.

Open Door Theater (Guest Post)

November 19th, 2014

Reader Alison Waters-Short wrote to me after my post on the autism-friendly production of “The Lion King” to tell me about an accessibility-focused theater group that she’s involved with. I asked if she’d be willing to write a guest post on the topic, and she agreed. Here it is. Check out Open Door Theater, everyone, and thank you, Alison!

Bringing Theater to Everyone – Locally

Autism-Friendly Performance. Sensory-Friendly Film. Making entertainment accessible to audiences is the new thing, but how does that translate locally? And what about participating in the entertainment, not just watching it?

Major kudos go out to the recent autism-friendly performance of “The Lion King” in Boston that Robin wrote about recently. And to others such as Wheelock Family Theatre as well. Today, though, I want to tell you about another theater group you may have never heard of, right in Boston’s backyard.

Open Door Theater of Acton was founded in 1980 by two women who met at the bus stop, waiting for their kids. Between them, they wanted create a community theater organization with “open doors” for anyone, especially those who might not normally get the chance to participate in theater.

The early shows were a bit rag-tag, with cardboard sets painted by a local social group for people with disabilities and volunteers from a local nursing home. The sets could (and did) travel – but then again, they had to, as there was no storage for the group in the performance space! Now Open Door mounts one big musical per year, staged at the Acton-Boxborough junior high. Cast members often number over 100, bringing together families and people of all abilities on stage with boisterous, talented performances.

Throughout its evolution, Open Door has found ways to involve people on stage and off stage with all ranges of physical and cognitive challenges (e.g. actors and stage hands with autism-spectrum, spinal bifida, neurotypical, blindness, brittle bone disease, Down’s syndrome). Our most veteran player is a remarkably differently-abled woman who started on stage, has become an indispensible “Girl Friday” backstage, and now also serves on our board of directors.

These were the people that our founders wanted to “open doors” for. We were – and are! – proud to focus on people’s abilities, not disabilities. We welcome them into our theater family and give them support as a community to put their best foot forward. And like every family, ours has special traditions. Like doing the hokey-pokey together before every performance. When I joined Open Door in 2004, I didn’t know what to make of that. But now – watching the cast play together, across all boundaries that might otherwise separate them outside of the theater, is what I look forward to every year.

We’ve been dedicated to this inclusive mission since our founding. Then, in 2006, our music director asked for an ASL-interpreted performance so that his Deaf brother and sister-in-law could enjoy it. His question triggered the realization that while we had spent a lot of time reaching out to include people in our cast and crew, we hadn’t done anything for our audiences. We found ASL interpreters to partner with, and have had an ASL-interpreted performance every year since.

In 2013 our director suggested that adding an autism-friendly performance, as they had done on Broadway, would be a great fit with our mission. So we found a group to help us learn how to put one on, succeeded beyond our expectations, and then last year we did the same for an audio-described performance for the visually impaired. This year we are continuing to expand our ASL/audio inclusion by partnering with Children’s Hospital Audiology Outreach on an exciting new project to make participating in our show more accessible to students with hearing impairments, which in turn will likely bring more interest in our ASL-interpreted performance.

With some extra effort and thought, one step at a time, we have now evolved the Open Door mission to extend accessibility to our audiences as well as our participants.

It’s amazingly easy and hard at the same time to bring people together like this. Sometimes it seems to just happen organically, seeing the range of people who might otherwise not wave hello on a street come together to create a performance. Of course, it’s also a lot of hard work and planning. Providing buddies. Organizing scenes to consider everyone’s abilities. We do it because we believe that theater is for everyone, and the theater family can include us all.

And, speaking as someone who was in the cast of our very first autism-friendly performance, I tell you it was absolutely magical. Was it different? You bet. In a fabulous way. We could tell what we were doing was appreciated and enjoyed, and at the same time, it provided the cast and crew with a personal, meaningful connection to autism awareness that many of us had not previously had.

All that makes us sound like the only thing Open Door does is focus on special needs, and to be honest, as much as that is true, at the same time, it really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Open Door is about creating fantastic family-oriented theater productions that happen to be accessible to many cast members, crew members, and audiences. We create beautiful theater that seamlessly blends all this together.

When I look at all the families acting and playing together, when I see all these people backstage enjoying each other and making new friends…that’s why we do this. It’s not really magic. Like the best of entertainment, we work hard to make it look that way, and then we get to participate in the result as well. But it’s completely possible for other groups to do this, too – and I hope there are other local groups who do, or will. After all, everyone has something to contribute, and everyone needs a place to feel special and a part of a family. That’s what Open Door is really all about.

Well, unless the hokey pokey is really what it’s all about. And if so, we’re still set.

Open Door Theater’s next show is “Shrek The Musical.” Auditions are December 1-4, 2014 and performances are March 20-29, 2015. Please consider checking us out.

Stanley Milgram, the Phantom of the Laboratory

October 16th, 2014

Aeon Magazine has a brilliant piece arguing that the the Milgram obedience experiments are better viewed as performance art than as science:

To view the Milgram experiments as a work of art is to include the haunted young doctor as a character, and to question his reliability as a narrator. As an artwork, the experiments can tell us about much more than obedience to authority; they speak to memory, trauma, repetition, the foundations of post-war social thought, and the role of science in modernity. There is no experiment that can prove who we are but, in its particulars, art can speak in universals. Long after his tests are considered invalid, Milgram’s story will live on.

According to author Malcolm Harris, a recent book has cast critical light on Milgram’s science:

In Behind the Shock Machine (2012), the Australian journalist and psychologist Gina Perry assailed the very validity of the Milgram experiments. Although she initially came to the study of Milgram with sympathy for the haunted doctor, Perry quickly found a more worthy object for her feelings: Milgram’s subjects. Reviewing transcripts from the experiments in the Yale archive, she found a lot of disobedience hidden in the obedience numbers, and a number of confounding variables. For example, Milgram made sure subjects knew the payment for participation was theirs even if they walked away, but in the transcripts this seems to have triggered reciprocity with the experimenters. One subject continues only after the experimenter tells him he can’t return the money. Another obedient subject remonstrates after she’s finished obeying, because she quickly understands what the experiment was really about and is disgusted. In the drive for quantitative results, the procedure ignored valuable qualitative information. ‘I would never be able to read Obedience to Authority again without a sense of all the material that Milgram had left out,’ Perry writes, ‘the stories he had edited, and the people he had depicted unfairly.’

Read the whole piece, it’s fascinating. Ever since I became aware of science theater as a thing–about nine years ago or so, when I joined the Underground Railway Theater board–I’ve been surprised that so few plays focus on the social sciences, particularly psychology. It’s all wonderfully wifty mathematical metaphors or inspiring laboratory breakthroughs or medical ethics–never Pavlov or Milgram or Zimbardo. There have been a few plays about H.M., whose surgery-induced amnesia provided psychologists a chance to discover much about the workings of memory, and Freud and C.S. Lewis debate philosophy, more than science, in a popular one-set two-hander. But that’s about it.

Psychology experiments are wonderfully theatrical. Even the most boring thing you can do–give undergraduate psych students a bunch of surveys and flog the results for correlations*–requires a set, a script, and carefully arranged props. As the experimenter, you are playing a role and must stay in character. And that’s just surveys. When you get into social psychology and experiments with deception and confederates, it’s explicitly dramaturgical.

Which makes me wonder, then, if that isn’t part of the reason psychology doesn’t find itself onstage much? When the experiment itself is a little playlet, maybe that’s hard to dramatize. Except backstage dramas, comedies, and musicals are terribly popular, and twice-baked potatoes are a delicious food, so why should thematic doubling be so problematic?

Maybe the problem is that the results of psychology experiments, certainly the most famous ones, aren’t inspiring. Science plays tend to have the human being as the subject of the science, an inherently agentic and frankly inspiring stance. We are the species who figured out our origin! We can reach the stars and cure disease! Occasionally, a play will focus on people as the objects of science or technology–patients struggling with the complexities of medical science and politics, workers displaced by machines. This, too, is agentic, and if not inspiring, it can at least be ennobling. We are complex and worthy! We will fight for our rights!

Psychological science, and any stories you can think of to tell about it, has humans as both its subject and its object. It’s all us. And when it’s all about us, there’s no privileged place to put the human perspective. We are the dark continent being explored, and we are the explorers. And the bottom line is that what we’ve found in many of those explorations is extremely complicated, qualified, but undeniable evidence that under many circumstances, humans suck. We conform needlessly yet ignore important information. We literally do not see what is in front of our eyes. We are suggestible, vain, overly influenced by inappropriate cues, and wildly mistaken about our own nature. We are tribal, mistrustful yet gullible.

Discovering this does not make us feel inspired, or ennobled. The Milgram experiments can be viewed as art, and might indeed have been better art than science, but psychological science in general doesn’t tell the kind of stories that audiences want to hear. Science is about increasing our knowledge and control of the world around us. Psychological science shows us over and over how little knowledge and control we have, even of our very selves.

Do I sound like a Victorian, saying that audiences want to be “inspired” or “ennobled” by tales of scientific derring-do? Perhaps. But they do, dammit. The only possible response to learning about the Milgram experiment for the first time is “Aw, fuck. Really?”

You just can’t leave an audience in that state of mind and expect word-of-mouth to sell out your show. You just can’t.

*Needless to say, this is that thing I swore I would never, ever do for my dissertation, and then wound up doing.

“All About Emily” and acting natural

October 8th, 2014

This weekend I read Connie Willis’s novella “All About Emily,” a slight comedy of backstage intrigue, ambition, and … robots:

“Oh, dear.” Emily looked over at Dr. Oakes. “I knew I should have said I wanted to be an actress.” She turned back to me. “But I was afraid that might give the impression that I wanted your job, and of course I don’t. Artificials don’t want to take anyone’s job away from them.”

“Our artificials are designed solely to help humans,” Dr. Oakes said, “and to do only tasks that make humans’ jobs easier and more pleasant,” and this was obviously the company spiel. “They’re here to bring an end to those machines everyone hates—the self-service gas pump, the grocery store checkout machine, electronic devices no one can figure out how to program. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice young man fixing the bug in your laptop than a repair program? Or have a friendly, intelligent operator connect you to the person you need to talk to instead of trying to choose from a dozen options, none of which apply to your situation? Or—” he nodded at me, “tell you who starred in the original production of a musical rather than having to waste time looking it up on Google?”

“And you can do all that?” I asked Emily. “Pump gas and fix computers and spit out twenties?”

“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes wide. “I’m not programmed to do any of those things. I was designed to introduce artificials to the public.”

(You can read part of the story here.)

Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors for blending SF with 1940s screwball-comedy style banter. This novella isn’t great, but it’s a quick and entertaining read, and would possibly make a good stage play. Sometimes books and stories that are a little flat on the page come to wonderful life on stage or screen. Ms. Willis also predicts that “Chicago” will still be running in revival in 20 years, which strikes me as a safe bet. (Her chronology is a little dicey, but she has a good deal of fun predicting who and what will be lighting up Broadway in the near future.)

“All About Emily” is, of course, a takeoff on “All About Eve,” and the charming android Emily does ultimately decide she wants a stage career. Not as an actress, though, playing the messy heroines of Ibsen or Churchill. Emily wants to be a Rockette.

What else would a robot want to be? And yet, how unsatisfying would it be to watch the Rockettes and know that their illusion of inhuman perfection is no illusion? The whole point of the Rockettes is the uncanny spectacle of people behaving with the precision and uniformity of machines. Nobody would want to watch a robot Rockette.

A robot Medea, though? That might at least spark curiosity.

Theater, even at its most realistic, is not supposed to be indistinguishable from ordinary life. We want to be able to see a sliver of light between the actor and the character. We want to know what gap was bridged.

Science informing theater: Autism-friendly “Lion King”

October 1st, 2014

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook* and I found it fascinating. “The Lion King,” playing in Boston through October 11, will be doing an “autism-friendly” performance on October 10. From Boston Magazine:

The show is still the same production that we all know and love, but with some slight tweaks in order to create a sensory-friendly and, most-importantly, judgment-free environment. Some of the unique elements include: a reduction of jarring sounds and overall intensity and volume level; the elimination of strobe lights focused on the audience; the addition of a “calming area” for audience members; and trained staff and volunteers to provide real-time support.

“They leave the house lights up so that people can come and go,” [director of state government affairs for Autism Speak Judith] Ursitti says. “That’s a big accommodation that they provide. Many times, people with autism need a sensory break and they need a place to go. The production itself, what you see on the stage, the changes are subtle. It’s mainly sound and lighting changes. The scene with the hyenas in the elephant graveyard where there’s a lot of little geysers shooting up and there lots of light and noise, they only do one little light, and special effects like that are reduced.”

Now that’s science theater! The idea that autistic kids might enjoy plays, but have a hard time coping with the sensory overload and the social rules of theatergoing, is frankly groundbreaking. Until recently–I mean until very recently–we were thinking of autism only in terms deficits in social reasoning. And if autistic people didn’t understand the games people play and the motivations that led them to play those games, what on earth could they possibly get out of going to a show? Increasingly, though, researchers are looking at the autism spectrum in terms of sensory processing. This is clearly the model that the modified “Lion King” is using.

This article in Salon–an excerpt from Gregory Hickok’s book on neurology and cognition–is a heavy read, but does an outstanding job explaining the various controversies in the field. Here he is on the logic of the sensory-overload hypothesis:

This kind of effect—hyper-responsivity leading to avoidance— is observed regularly and uncontroversially in the sensory domain. Autistic individuals often cover their ears when even moderately loud sounds are present in the environment and exhibit other forms of avoidance behavior. As with the rock concert sound system example at the beginning of this chapter, if an autistic person failed to get information out of moderately loud sounds or simply left the room, we wouldn’t say that he or she had a diminished capacity to hear the sound. The response is more readily explained as an increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation. As autistic author Temple Grandin said in a radio interview, “How is a person going to socialize if their ears are so sensitive that just being at a restaurant is like being inside the speaker at a rock ‘n’ roll concert and it’s hurting their ears?” Good question.

One piece of evidence cited for autistics’ supposed lack of concern for other people’s mental states is that autistic people often do not look at faces, either in social situations or in lab experiments. However, what if faces contained too much information for them to focus on?

Also consistent with the alternative, emotional hyperreactivity hypothesis are statements from autistic individuals themselves. Here’s a sample gleaned from a paper covering face processing in autism: It’s painful for me to look at other people’s faces. Other people’s eyes and mouths are especially hard for me to look at.

My lack of eye contact sometimes makes people, especially my teachers and professors, think that I’m not paying attention to them.

—Matthew Ward, student, University of Wisconsin

Eyes are very intense and show emotions. It can feel creepy to be searched with the eyes. Some autistic people don’t even look at the eyes of actors or news reporters on television.

—Jasmine Lee O’Neill, author

For all my life, my brothers and everyone up ’til very recently, have been trying to make me look at them straight in the face. And that is about the hardest thing that I, as an autistic person, can do, because it’s like hypnosis. And you’re looking at each other square in the eye, and it’s very draining.

—Lars Perner, professor, San Diego State University

These are revealing statements for two reasons. First, they provide a clear indication of an intact theory of mind in these individuals (“my lack of eye contact . . . makes people . . . think that . . .”). And second, active avoidance of eye contact provides just as much evidence for sensitivity to the information contained therein as does active engagement of eye contact. If you can’t recognize that there is information in the eyes, why avoid them?

In this piece from the New York Times, a father recounts how Disney movies have enabled him to connect with his autistic son. Owen Suskind’s extreme affinity for Disney movies gave him an emotional vocabulary, a set of images and metaphors and models for being that he could use to interact with the world around him. He learned to read by sussing out the credits.

Owen’s chosen affinity clearly opened a window to myth, fable and legend that Disney lifted and retooled, just as the Grimm Brothers did, from a vast repository of folklore. Countless cultures have told versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” which dates back 2,000 years to the Latin “Cupid and Psyche” and certainly beyond that. These are stories human beings have always told themselves to make their way in the world.

But what draws kids like Owen to these movies is something even more elemental. Walt Disney told his early animators that the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off. Inadvertently, this creates a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing, especially, in recent decades, when the films can be rewound and replayed many times.

The latest research that Cornelia and I came across seems to show that a feature of autism is a lack of traditional habituation, or the way we become used to things. Typically, people sort various inputs, keep or discard them and then store those they keep. Our brains thus become accustomed to the familiar. After the third viewing of a good movie, or a 10th viewing of a real favorite, you’ve had your fill. Many autistic people, though, can watch that favorite a hundred times and seemingly feel the same sensations as the first time. While they are soothed by the repetition, they may also be looking for new details and patterns in each viewing, so-called hypersystemizing, a theory that asserts that the repetitive urge underlies special abilities for some of those on the spectrum.

Disney provided raw material, publicly available and ubiquitous, that Owen, with our help, built into a language and a tool kit. I’m sure, with enough creativity and energy, this can be done with any number of interests and disciplines. For some kids, their affinity is for train schedules; for others, it’s maps. While our household may not be typical, with a pair of writerly parents and a fixation on stories — all of which may have accentuated and amplified Owen’s native inclinations — we have no doubt that he shares a basic neurological architecture with people on the autism spectrum everywhere.

The challenge is how to make our example useful to other families and other kids, whatever their burning interest. That’s what Team Owen seems to be talking about. How does this work? Is there a methodology? Can it be translated from anecdote to analysis and be helpful to others in need?

Yes, parents of neurotypical kids, there are children who want to watch “Frozen” over and over again in a way that makes your daughter look like a quitter. Let it go!

From laboratory to stage to family rec room, scientists and artists and parents are using stories and theater to understand the human mind–and using our increasing knowledge of the human mind to tell stories in new ways. Ways that more of us can understand.

This kind of thing excites me, and fills me with great hope.

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Autobiographical memory and H.M.

September 24th, 2014

Do women remember life events better than men?

A better question might be, do little girls get taught to remember better than boys? According to Slate, this might be the case:

Researchers are finding some preliminary evidence that women are indeed better at recalling memories, especially autobiographical ones. Girls and women tend to recall these memories faster and with more specific details, and some studies have demonstrated that these memories tend to be more accurate, too, when compared to those of boys and men. And there’s an explanation for this: It could come down to the way parents talk to their daughters, as compared to their sons, when the children are developing memory skills.

To understand this apparent gender divide in recalling memories, it helps to start with early childhood—specifically, ages 2 to 6. Whether you knew it or not, during these years, you learned how to form memories, and researchers believe this happens mostly through conversations with others, primarily our parents. These conversations teach us how to tell our own stories, essentially; when a mother asks her child for more details about something that happened that day in school, for example, she is implicitly communicating that these extra details are essential parts to the story.

And these early experiments in storytelling assist in memory-making, research shows. One recent study tracked preschool-age kids whose mothers often asked them to elaborate when telling stories; later in their lives, these kids were able to recall earlier memories than their peers whose mothers hadn’t asked for those extra details.

But the way parents tend to talk to their sons is different from the way they talk to their daughters. Mothers tend to introduce more snippets of new information in conversations with their young daughters than they do with their young sons, research has shown. And moms tend to ask more questions about girls’ emotions; with boys, on the other hand, they spend more time talking about what they should do with those feelings.

A few years ago, I was leading a post-show talkback after a production of “Yesterday Happened,” a play at Central Square Theater about Henry Molaison, better known as “H.M.” H.M. was a man born in the 1920s who suffered from severe epilepsy, and the surgery used to cure it–removal of most of his hippocampus and amygdala–also prevented him from ever forming new memories. He lived in 10-minute increments, much like the man in “Memento.” Much of what we know about how human memory works is because of experiments performed on H.M.

Anyway, one of the audience members who stayed for the talkback pointed out that H.M. seemed to have a notable lack of memories from before his surgery as well, and what was up with that?

I said that I didn’t know, but that H.M. reminded me of my father in many respects–the same generation, general ethnic background and social class, IQ and intellectual ambitions, overall temperament–and he hadn’t had a lot of specific memories, either. I pointed out the fact that memory isn’t an automatic recording of events, and that my father simply never bothered to encode a great deal about his own experiences, and you don’t remember what you don’t encode. He was taught to value facts, observable phenomena, and social expectations–not his own personal mythology. He didn’t make a big deal about his life story and the various chapters thereof, the way people do today.

After the talkback, an older man in the audience came up to me and said I was exactly right about the psychology of men of his generation and station in life.

There’s a new play about H.M. in town, if I’ve managed to pique your curiosity! The guy was important–they never write science plays about the subjects of experiments, for heaven’s sake, and H.M. has been the star of two, now! The new one is “The Forgetting Curve,” by Vanda, a Bridge Rep production playing at the Boston Center for the Arts. This weekend they’ve got some great memory experts to lead post-show conversations:

Wednesday, 9/24 – Dr. Howard Eichenbaum; Dr. Daniel L. Schacter
Thursday, 9/25 – Dr. Ayanna Thomas
Friday, 9/26 – Bob Linscott
Saturday, 9/27 – Dr. Bonnie Wong

“The Forgetting Curve” runs through this Saturday. Check it out!

“Cartoon dramas,” political & personal

September 23rd, 2014

The Globe published a good op-ed this weekend by Meta Wagner, a writing instructor at Emerson, about “cartoon dramas”:

But, now there’s a new, popular TV genre that somehow pulls me in while preventing me from becoming fully invested. I’ve come to think of it as the cartoon drama.

With cartoon dramas, the people, the storylines, and the situations are so unreal — or perhaps hyper-real — as to be laughable, which perfectly befits cartoons but not traditional dramas. These shows (their precursor is “24”) take the most frightening and horrifying political events of the day and present them in an over-the-top, unbelievable, outrageous fashion. It’s television for an age where we’re concerned and terrified yet simultaneously suffering from compassion fatigue: the age of ISIS, ISIL, the beheadings of two American journalists, war in Syria, a do-nothing Congress, the militarization of our police forces, the Ebola virus, etc.

And so viewers not only turn to sitcoms and reality TV to escape, we also turn to cartoon dramas to confront the ugliness of current events, but in a way that can leave us ultimately untouched. Murder, torture, corruption — none of it sticks.

She identifies “Scandal,” “Homeland,” and “House of Cards” as three of the biggest offenders, or perhaps I should say “delighters.” Ever since Bertolt Brecht, we’ve known that while drama inherently draws people in, there are also techniques it can use to push an audience away–not in the sense of disengaging, exactly, but in the sense of making people aware, suddenly or stubbornly, that they are watching a piece of staged entertainment. Brecht called it the “alienation effect.” If you’ve ever seen a show where you can see all the ropes and pulleys backstage, or where the stagehands move the furniture around in plain sight, not trying to be unobtrusive–that’s a little Brechtianism, right there.

Television can’t simply show you the wires and hired help, like theater can, but it has other ways of reminding the audience that this is just a show. (Besides the most obvious one, commercials–which to this day no one has employed to better Brechtian effect than Alfred Hitchcock in 1950s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” program.) Television can get the alienation effect by being over-the-top, or self-referential, or–and no stage director would dare try this–simply not very good.

I wrote a similar analysis to Ms. Wagner’s about “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which I still consider, pace “Scandal,” to be the finest exemplar of the genre.

An aesthetic style that would continually shift audiences between sentimental empathy and critical awareness is called “epic theater.” It was a groundbreaking idea a hundred years ago, and the smartest theater artists in the world are still exploring this extraordinarily fertile concept today.

“L&O: SVU” achieves epic theater status by the simple expedient of not being very good.

Or, more precisely, being bad in very specific ways that keep the viewer from being overwhelmed by the horror of the actual stories portrayed in the show. Those stories, and the actors who play them–those are often very good indeed.

In the episode “Disabled,” for example, the detectives watch a video recording of a caretaker beating a paralyzed woman with a bar of soap in a sock. The woman in the wheelchair has advanced multiple sclerosis; she can feel the beating, but not dodge or even scream beyond choked moans and grunts. The video goes on for several minutes, one woman mercilessly pounding another across the head, face, breasts. The detectives are repulsed–even Ice-T is visibly shaken. The video cuts out.

After a moment of silence, the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Huang, speaks. “I think Janice deeply resents having to care for her sister.”

YOU THINK? Let me tell you, Bertolt Brecht is kicking himself in his grave, if such a thing is possible, for not putting Dr. Huang in “The Good Woman of Szechuan.”

This is how “L&O: SVU” works. It doesn’t distance the viewer with theatrical “breaking the fourth wall” tricks. It distances the viewer by providing such an excess of information, which is never understood by the characters to be so, that the “Duh” response of any normal person is triggered several times an episode. This makes it possible to actually enjoy tales of horror that would otherwise be far too disturbing.

Whether the fears are international terrorist threats or the psychopath next door, “cartoon drama” helps you put them in a box and cope. You can read the whole thing here.

Recent notes (what I’ve read & seen)

September 16th, 2014

My most recent culture-vulturing:

Closer Than Ever” at New Rep. “Songs by Maltby & Shire” translates to “ballads for the middle-aged and middle-class,” but the sometimes dated numbers are given heartfelt and witty treatment by this excellent cast. A cast which includes … Science-Entertainment Quotient: Surprisingly high for a musical! Local actor Brian Richard Robinson, one of the two men in the four-person cast, “is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, and currently works at a Cambridge-based biotechnology company.” (I tried to talk to Dr. Robinson at the opening-night reception but he was busy being asked how he remembers all those lines, so I made myself scarce.) Also, one of the numbers–”The Bear, the Hamster, the Hamster, and the Mole,” about the advantages of reproduction without romance, was staged as a TED talk.


Photo by Andrew Brilliant

Ravenous.” Ain’t no party like a Donner party, ’cause a Donner party don’t stop. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle are cannibals in the old West–one unwilling, one gleefully triumphant. More satirical than graphic, although definitely very creepy. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Idiosyncratic. The Ig Nobel opera this year, “What’s Eating You?” is all about the food chain and, on some level, the idea that wisdom resides in accepting the fact that we must all eat and be eaten. I watched “Ravenous” after our rehearsal last weekend and found it relevant and inspiring … but clearly, this was me.

The Secret Place by Tana French. The hothouse atmosphere of an elite girls’ school and the 24-hour timeline (with flashbacks, of course), combine to make a claustrophobic psychological mystery. The portrayal of how young women police themselves and each other was especially compelling. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Nugatory, thanks to a credulous portrayal of teenage telekinesis which adds nothing to the plot or characterization.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I’d last been there when I was eight, and yes, it was just as impressive to me today. And surprisingly redemptive. Like a lot of us, I’ve been reading and watching and thinking too much, much too much, lately, about humanity at its worst. The Smithsonians remind you of humanity at its best: curious, questing, ingenious. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Off the charts! The Hall of Human Origins was my favorite. Look at these gorgeous reconstructed faces of early humans!


Does the top right one look like Mandy Patinkin in “Homeland” to anyone else?

If you were a meat puppet, could anyone tell?

September 9th, 2014

If an alien took over your body and controlled your speech and actions, how long would it be before anyone noticed?

That’s not exactly the research question that “cyranoids” are designed to answer, but they could. Neuroskeptic reports that a couple of British psychologists, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, have replicated two “cyranoid” experiments originally done by Stanley Milgram, of obedience-experiment fame.

“Cyranoid” was Milgram’s coinage–from Cyrano de Bergerac–for a person who is not speaking for or as themselves, but merely repeating words that another person is giving them. Cyrano had to hide in bushes and whisper loudly enough to be heard by Christian–and the audience–but quietly enough to be unnoticed by the fortunately rather dim Roxanne. This is all much easier with modern technology, and Corti & Gillespie were able to set up a microphone-and-monitor system that allowed Person #3 (Cyrano) to listen in on a conversation between Persons #1 and #2 (Roxanne and Christian) and feed “lines,” appropriate or inappropriate, to Christian.


Different aesthetic, same idea.

People didn’t notice, not even when Christian was a 12-year-old boy with his conversation being supplied by a 37-year-old psychologist as Cyrano. Maybe Roxanne wasn’t so dim after all.

Neuroskeptic calls this “Milgram’s creepiest experiment” and writes

If I started shadowing someone else’s speech, would my friends and family notice? I would like to think so. Most of us would like to think so. But how easy would it be? Do we really listen to each others’ words, after all, or do we just assume that because person X is speaking, they must be saying the kind of thing that person X likes to say? We’re getting into some uncomfortable territory here.

I’m not sure that much surprise is warranted, although I envy Neuroskeptic’s easy confidence that his loved ones are truly listening to him. We know people often attend more to the form than the content of other people’s speech–this is why Miss Conduct often recommends giving “placebic excuses” when ruffled feathers need to be soothed. And there’s a whole series of experiments showing that people don’t notice change in their environment. (I don’t mean “How could you not notice I changed the shelf liners, honey,” either–I mean like you’re talking to a whole ‘nother person than you started talking to, and you still don’t notice.)

More to the point, though, people aren’t going to twig to a cyranoid because cyranoids don’t exist. As Corti & Gillespie write,

It seems that when encountering an interlocutor face-to-face, people rarely question whether the “mind” and the “body” of a person are indeed unified–and for good reason, as social interaction would be undermined if we began to doubt whether each person we encountered was indeed the true author of the words they expressed.

The authors point out that people do often notice identity discrepancies “in artificial environments (e.g., Second Life and other virtual community games) wherein users can construct outer personae which starkly contrast with their real-world identities.” You don’t even need to go into immersive environments–even the comment threads on opinion blogs will tend to feature people accusing others of not really being a member of whatever group they’re attempting to speak for, or of adopting a sock-puppet identity, or the like. When we know that people’s words and being need not match up, we can be quite vigilant about clues.

I always figured that’s how Starfleet crew members managed to cotton on so quickly whenever their colleagues got possessed by the Aliens of the Week. Deanna Troi learned all the Signs of Alien Possession to watch out for when she was in psychology school, just like nowadays you learn the signs of addiction or suicide risk. I don’t even want to think how long it would take me to notice if my boss got assimilated by the Borg.

Corti & Gillespie write that people have always been fascinated by the idea of persons speaking through other persons, or different identities in the same body:

This well-known story [of Cyrano de Bergerac] is but one of the many examples of a fantasy that has appeared in the arts and mythology throughout history–that of the fusion of separate bodies and minds. Other illustrations include The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in part the tale of a fraudster who is able to attain great power by presenting himself to the world through an intimidating artificial visage. The film Big entertains the folly that ensues when an adolescent boy awakens to find himself in the body of a middle-aged man. More recently, films such as Avatar and Surrogates have imagined hypothetical futures in which mind can be operationally detached from body, allowing individuals to operate outer personae constructed to suit their social goals. Fiction though they may be, these stories illuminate the power façade has over how we are perceived by ourselves and by others, and how we and others in turn behave in accordance with these perceptions.

“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: