Les Miserables, Prufrock, and Imagery

I saw Les Miserables at Village Theatre opening night.

I had a good time, so let me say some good things first: The set is fantastic, and a lot of the performances were wonderful (I know Kate Jaeger, but don’t think its bias speaking when I say that she, Nick DeSantis and Victoria Ames Smith made for some of the strongest Les Miserables scenes I’ve ever seen staged). Everyone involved should be proud of the piece. Go see it, and you’ll almost certainly be impressed.

Ensemble performing Lovely Ladies. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Ensemble performing Lovely Ladies. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Here’s the rub : I spent the whole time marvelling at the technical spectacles of the show. And that’s the problem. I was rarely very emotionally invested, and when the revolution came, it seemed compelled by the needs of the show than the needs of the characters. I barely paid attention to “les miserables”, because I was so distracted by the machinations of the stage. It was as if the title characters of the piece didn’t quite fit in with the level of production, so they were either cleaned up, or shipped out of the city so a nicely produced revolution could take place.

Of course, that’s almost always a problem with the musical version Les Miserables, and I still consider it one of my favorite musicals, but it certainly doesn’t achieve an ounce of what I think Victor Hugo set out to achieve when he wrote the book.

Today, I ran into another example of this pattern in art, where excess robs the audience of their ability to connect, when Slate posted this comic versionof T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by Julian Peters.
JAlfredComicPage

I like artist, and I love this poem, so it caught my attention when I didn’t like the piece as a whole.

Poetry has a bad reputation for being inaccessible, which is too bad, because the core of the art is the opposite. How does the artist make their experiences and feelings accessible to the reader?

Consider the lines depicted to the right, but alone, without the image:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Good poetry depends on the reader imagining the images described. And imagination is not creation, it is re-creation. The reader recreate the visual images out of their own experiences. When I read “certain half-deserted streets” I create the image out of the certain half-deserted streets in my memory, and suddenly I’m there.

When you hand me the image, I’m robbed of the process. These are somebody else’s half-deserted streets. When I read the comic, I notice how clever it is that “streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent” winds through the illustrated city, but when I read the poem, I actually connect to the memories about tedious arguments I’ve been part of, and I feel the connection.

At any rate, if I were to stage Les Miserables, I’d want to find a way to allow the audience to empathize with the people of Montreuil-sur-Mer and Paris. In this production, I never really did. And maybe that’s not what the Village audience wants. The Thenardiers work well, because the show makes us all Thenardiers, greedy for more spectacle, and taking advantage of the story in order to get what we want. But the poor of Paris disappeared, crushed under the massive set.

Actually, there was one moment that absolutely achieved what I’m looking for: Victoria Ames Smith’s “Castle on a Cloud”.

Victoria Ames as Little Cosette. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Victoria Ames as Little Cosette. Les Misérables production photo. © 2013 Mark Kitaoka. Property of Village Theatre.

Little Cosette, standing in a small pool of light, while the massive set receded into the even larger darkness, really felt alone.  And when she sang beautifully, it felt like she was overcoming that isolation to connect with us. Maybe she was truly nervous to be on stage, or maybe she’s one of those rare children who can truly embody emotional acting, but when she sang, she was beautiful. The whole spectacle of the piece disappeared, and I was watching young Cosette stumble through the woods with a bucket alone on a mostly dark stage, and I was transported to my own woods, far scarier than any that could be built for a stage.

Production knew to get out of the way.  The woods were made of trees I’ve walked among, not the trees of a highly-skilled carpentry team, and I wasn’t impressed. I was moved.

Gender, Storytelling and Culture

All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are sides, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side.  ~Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929

On Saturday, my improv group, NERDProv, performed at GeekGirlCon. We had a really fun show, got a lot of compliments, and all of us felt pretty good about the show. In notes, we realized that the show had been pretty heavy with males playing main characters. And then one of our members forwarded us a strong, well-expressed and fair piece of criticism from an audience member who walked out. It echoed some things we talked about in notes, so it really hit home.

Rather than ignore it or feel defensive, I thought it’d be a good idea to explore how the show could have gone better and avoided excluding some of our audience and perpetuating bad cultural patterns.

There has been a lot of discussion, lately, about gender and improv. A lot of the discussion about gender and improv is about how female performers are treated, who is responsible for changing it, whether it really has to do with gender or if it’s just bad behavior, regardless of gender.  Rather than rehash that conversation, I’ll point to Elicia Wickstead’s post, which sums up a lot of the conversation.

In most the groups I perform with, I believe that most of us feel we’re treated as improvisers first, regardless of our gender. That includes NERDProv. I have no doubt that I, and others I work with, male and female, have sexist assumptions buried in our brains, but I do think we’re pretty good at trying to recognize and change them.

I also want to say, up front, that most the issues I’m discussing really aren’t limited to gender. In the same way that sexist improv is really just bad improv, sexist storytelling is often just bad (or limited) storytelling. That doesn’t let us off the hook for the sexism itself, but I think recognizing it helps us reduce the impact of our unresolved preconceptions. I also don’t think its a problem to be solved by men, or a problem to be solved by women: I think its a pattern to be recognized and broken by all of us together.

In one of early scenes, in a game of Pillars, where two audience members provide lines of dialog, I managed to bring up two males (one was a young boy, one was an enthusastic audience member who jumped up without being pointed to directly: still, I should have spent more time making sure the person I actually picked joined us).  I also believe the suggestion came from a male: I asked for a problem geeks might be trying to solve, and got, “Trying to meet women.”  Now, in a normal show, this might not be optimal, but problem wouldn’t be a big deal.  Since this was Geek GIRL Con, I’d have been smarter to have been careful that we had more female voices involved.

One of the skits involved one of the woman members improving herself into the scene as a queer woman in a bar, and then quickly devolved into the male members playing characters that were men, and creeping on her.
-Tsubame Productions

The scene began, and stage-position-wise, we had one female performer surrounded by three men.  That performer made a good, strong choice to be the one who was actually looking to meet women.  It was a neat offer that could have gone several directions. The main point, though, was that once a character like that expresses a need, she should be the main character.  I don’t actually have a problem with the fact that the males ended up being an obstacle: I think the reason it devolved was that the men became the main characters right away by expressing their own needs: to meet women, rather than pulling back and keeping the focus on the initial offer.  Instead of a woman overcoming the challenge of clueless, creppy men, it became awkward, creepy men trying to (and, fortunately failing to) overcome an uninterested woman. By the time the second female character entered, we men we’re standing center stage while they exited Stage Right. Blah: not the way I’d direct it, certainly, but in the moment, that’s the choice we made.

Setting aside the gender implications, this is bad, lazy storytelling, because it dropped an interesting story for a boring story about nerd stereotypes that’s been told a hunded times.  Putting gender back in: part of the reason it’s a boring story is that it’s based on two outdated, sexist assumptions: (1) that women are prizes to be won by men and (2) that men’s needs make for better storytelling. That makes it a poorer choice, but the fact is, we pass up interesting storytelling opportunities all the time, because its easier to be on the same page if we’re lazy.

When looking into the assumption we make on stage, I think it’s really useful to apply the Bechdel Test to our improvisation.

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

[To see the original source of the Bechdel Test, check out this comic, by Alison Bechdel. The actual rule comes from Liz Wallace.]

In most the early scenes, our show didn’t pass this test. The fact is, our culture produces a lot of entertainment that can’t pass this rule, and rather than breaking those patterns, we took them on wholesale.  In one of the next games, I let the audience pick the hero and the villain.  They quickly pointed to the two males I allowed them to choose from.  And of course they did: comics are still trying to find their way out of the same traps other entertainment is, and we’re all so used to the old stories, we easily default to them.

In another sport, known as “Visual Comic Book,” the woman members were given limited and stereotypical roles (nagging mother, sidekick/girlfriend in a tight sweater who was basically useless, Shawarma waitress …) while the men were of course the superhero and the villain and carried out most of the action and plot.
-Tsubame Productions

Again, she’s correct.  I was the narrator, and helped make the choices: again, default choices. In rehearsal, to be fair, the hero was female and the useless sidekick was male, but in the show, we ended up with more stereotypical choices, and again, ended up with a stereotypical story that could have been a lot better with fully realized characters.  Again, gender isn’t the core issue here: bad storytelling is. The gender disparity certainly makes it easier to see, though.

Anyway, we don’t usually get to find out why our audience members walk out, and I think we too often make excuses for them when they do, rather than admitting that something about the show turned them off enough that they didn’t want to spend their valuable time on the show anymore.

I love NERDProv, and I think my fellow improvisers did a great job: it was a really fun show, and we got a lot of compliments. But the criticism was correct too, and we could have done a better job making sure everyone had fun.  Obviously, if we get the opportunity to perform at GeekGirlCon again, we’ll work harder to make sure our show IS better balanced and showcases more female characters (and audience members), but the reality is that it we should have done a better job, no matter where we performed.

As far as solving it, rather than focusing exclusively on gender, I hope we’ll focus on the willingness to tell better, more interesting stories, rather than the old stories of an outdated world that didn’t have room for the narratives and voices that haven’t already been heard to exhaustion.

Quotes from Non-Improvisers That Apply To Improv

What follows are a lot of quotes that I pulled from a painting book (Charles Dunn’s Conversations in Paint), plus a couple of extras.  They all apply to improv, in one way or another, in my mind, and I’ll probably quote them in future posts.

Acting and Being Present

“You’re afraid because you’re thinking about the end, not about what you’re doing.” –Helen Van Wyk

“Some musicians are not great technicians, but they give you a rich point of view.” –Nathan Milstein

“It’s not what you paint. It’s how you paint it. You don’t have to paint elaborate things. Paint simple things as beautifully as you can.” –Helen Van Wyk

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy books and by all eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking about what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by increasing the number of important operations we can perform without thinking.” –Alfred North Whitehead

“”You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Style and Content

“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana

“A painting is good, not because it looks like something, but because it feels like something.” –Phil Dike

“If you don’t see the wonder in the most ordinary phenomenon, you’re not going to resonate very much.” –Artie Shaw

Narrative

“A golfer rarely needs to hit a spectacular shot until the one that preceded it was pretty bad.” –Harvey Penick

“The amateur is afraid of boldness; the professional is afraid of timidity.” –Ed Whitney

“If you don’t know how to say it, say it loud.” –Will Strunk, Jr.

“The painting is usually finished before you are.” –Rex Brandt

“Devotion to the facts will always give the pleasure of recognition; adherence to the rules of design, the pleasures of order and certainty.” –Kenneth Clark

Character Choices

“Anything is intensified by its opposite.” –Ed Whitney

Teaching

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” –Anatule France

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artists once we grow up.” –Pablo Picasso

Grab Bag

“Exactly right is all wrong!” –Ed Whitney

“Painting is founded on the heart controlled by the head.” –Cezanne

“The audience is astonishingly friendly and tolerant of even the slightest dab, but is limited in its willingness to look either deeply or at length.” –Rex Brandt

“Time and rest are needed for absorption. Psychologists confirm that it is really in the summer that our muscles learn to skate and in the winter, how to swim.” –Jacques Barzun

Update (7/26/12): Added an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote suggested by Dara Lillis.

Starting Fresh

I’ve had blogs, journals, and random collections of ramblings before, but I wanted to get a fresh start, from where I am in my life today, as an improviser, a writer, an (amateur) artist, and a human being.  I’ll mostly discuss improv, which is what I’m most qualified to discuss, but as I believe in blurred boundaries between forms of art, we’ll see where we end up.

So… welcome!