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Story of a Hurricane

I started this blog on Thursday night; it’s now Sunday morning as I pick it up again. 

Thursday night:

It’s been a long week. Sunday night, the NYC Subway shut down in advance of Hurricane Sandy. Parts of New York City are getting back to normal, while other areas are still devastated. My electricity has been out since Monday night, but things could be worse. I have running water and my gas stove works. Since I work in midtown, getting supplies wasn’t too much of a hassle – although lines are longer than usual, everywhere.

Further downtown, things are worse. On Staten Island and in New Jersey, in parts of Queens and Brooklyn, things are worse. (Note from Sunday: The situation in certain affected communities is still not good, but efforts to get help to people in those areas seem to be getting more notice now.)

Sunday, October 28th, my roommate and I stocked up on supplies and prepared to be without the Subway. Monday morning, we went down to the water to look at the beginnings of the storm surge; the park was already closed off, and the pier that usually sits several feet out of the water already had waves at its edges.

As the weather got more intense on Monday night, we lost power and cell signals. My roommate and I stayed up until about midnight, reading aloud from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and drinking beer and wine. Earlier in the day I made vegetarian chili, just before the power went out I made my grandmother’s recipe for pizza. “At least pizza will keep for a couple days,” I thought. Work had already been cancelled for  Tuesday, at that point. When the power blew, our frenzy of snacking came to an end: now the plan was to conserve the cold in the fridge in the hopes it would only take a day or two to come back on.

Tuesday morning I woke up before my roommate. No power, no internet. No hot water, though the cold still worked.

At this point in writing, the friend who’d taken me in Thursday night and I started chatting and I put this blog aside for a few days. I’d like to jump ahead, but instead I’ll pick up where I left off. The remainder of this blog is being written early Sunday morning.

I checked the windows: things didn’t look too badly flooded, but my phone wasn’t getting a signal. Without a battery-operated radio, there was just one thing to do: head outside and survey the damage in the neighborhood. I left my roommate a note saying I was going exploring, and headed outside with my cell phone and charger. I got to the corner and said good morning to a couple pedestrians; finally I ran into a man walking purposefully down the avenue and asked if he knew if anything was open.

“What kind of place are you looking for?” he asked.

“Just somewhere I can charge my phone,” I said.

He shook his head. “There’s no power below 30th street,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said. He continued on his way and I stood for a moment before deciding to head back upstairs. Once I got back to the apartment I asked my roommate if she’d like to come exploring with me, since we wouldn’t be able to communicate, or if she wanted to stay at home. She decided to stay in the apartment and I headed out.

I walked up to Times Square, through the West Village and Chelsea. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but there were plenty of closed buildings and trees down along the way. It was a few blocks before I got my cell phone signal back. Everything was closed. Most stores had signs in their windows from Sunday night – closed from XX time because the subway was shutting down at seven. There were no traffic lights, but not much traffic (yet) either. Eventually I made it to the Marriott, where an upper-floor lounge had plenty of plugs and power – plus coffee. (The Starbucks downstairs was also, it seems, something of a post-hurricane Mecca for city-dwellers looking for a way to spend their time). I drank a coffee and charged my phone and called my parents and chatted with some of you on Twitter, and once I’d rested for a while, turned around and started back on my way home.

Tuesday night was quiet and dark. My roommate and I are both writers, so we set up our candles and projects and I got a bit further along in editing and rewriting Electalytics (by the way, once my mailing list gets 50 subscribers, I’ll be sending out a sneak preview of the first chapter of my novella project). Both of us had work in the morning. By the end of Tuesday, there were loose estimates of power coming back on.

Wednesday I went to work. I was the only one on my team who made it in. Limited bus service had resumed, but the bus stops were mobbed – this got marginally better as the week progressed and the subway slowly breathed back to its current (as of 5am) status of about 80% functionality. I came home Wednesday night and, with no power or internet to distract me, decided to wash my hair. This required boiling water on the stove, dumping it in the tub, and hoping I could finish boiling enough water to take a bath before it all cooled off. I joked to my roommate (over text – by now we’d gotten enough of a signal back in the apartment to be able to send and receive texts, though they were often delayed) that I was going all Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wednedsay night was Halloween. Bloomberg had already cancelled/postponed the Halloween Parade, and with the power out my roommate and I decided to go for a walk before it got too dark out. We took a flashlight with us.

I don’t know about other New Yorkers, but for me, this was one of the first chances I’d had to experience the city in darkness – and as we walked, of course, it got darker. Pretty soon it was pitch black out, and we were glad to have the flashlight. Walking across downtown, it occurred to me: anybody – or anything (remember, it’s Halloween and my roommate and I are both writers) – could be hiding in the shadows. Once I said that out loud, our imaginations ran away with us and we beat a trail back to the city’s nearest main thoroughfare.

Cars were backed up from Houston to Cooper Square. Commuters were smushed into buses that weren’t moving anywhere (the featured photo from this blog entry was taken on this walk). The High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) restrictions hadn’t been put into place yet, so traffic was barely moving.

Walking back through our neighborhood, we found a cafe where the owners had set up a generator and had a full menu ready. It was an oasis of civilization. We ducked in, charged phones, had wine and split an order of bruschetta. Next, we wandered along to a cash-only place that had no power, but was still serving beer. We got to talking to the women who owned the place, and even got to watch part of the impromptu Halloween Parade that headed past – a thin line of costumed enthusiasts hanging on to a city tradition. Finally, we stopped at a bar across the street from the apartment and bought a bottle each of Corona before getting a stealth-upsold shot of Jameson apiece – “only,” as we found out once they were poured, nine bucks.

Thursday was when the frayed edges of the week started to unravel. I picked out the things that we needed to get out of the fridge and walked them into work, while my roommate made her second 100-block trek to work in as many days. I found a gym at lunchtime and had my first proper shower since Sunday night. Left work early to make my own (much shorter) hike home. But when I got here, the power still wasn’t on and the apartment was cold; by the time my roommate got home we agreed we’d strike out to stay with friends until things came back together – which was now looking like Saturday night.

Which brings us to Thursday night. We split a cab to Grand Central and parted ways, and I headed further uptown to stay with my old roommate (you may remember her, she was briefly on twitter as @mycoolroommate). I bought us a huge BBQ dinner, we stuffed our faces, and then we watched TV and hung out. Friday was full of silly movies – first NO STRINGS ATTACHED (which I have to say, I quite liked) and then TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL, which if you haven’t seen , you should make time for. Friday night we met up with another friend who’s a bartender, and she kept us in cocktails for the evening.

Saturday morning, the news came out via ConEd’s twitter feed that my network had been restored around 9 in the morning. I made my way home – the subway was already running straight through Manhattan to Brooklyn. I walked home from Union Square to survey the neighborhood, and spent most of yesterday alternating between cleaning up my apartment.

Now it’s Sunday. I woke up at three in the morning (technically four) after falling asleep early last night and spent the last couple hours writing this post and putting photos in the gallery below.

 

An Interview with Kevin Kerr: TEAR THE CURTAIN in Toronto

Jonathan Young and Dawn Petten in Tear the Curtain. Photo by David Cooper.

If you’re interested in boundary-pushing multi-media theater, Toronto is the place to be this October. Why? Because Vancouver’s Electric Company has pitched up to open Canadian Stage’s 2012-2013 season with their multi-media extravaganza, Tear the Curtain.

I’m looking forward to seeing the production later this month, and was able to interview Artistic Director and co-creator Kevin Kerr in advance of their opening.

From the show’s press release:

“…the production follows Alex Braithwaite (played by [Jonathon] Young), a jaded theatre critic in a gritty film noir rendition of Vancouver in the 1930s, as the advent and popularity of the “Talkies” threatens the existence of theatre. When Alex falls for the screen siren Mila, he’s caught dangerously between two warring mob families: one controlling the city’s playhouses, the other, its cinemas. Alex tries to tear through the artifice and war between these art forms without selling his soul – or losing his mind. Devised as a detective story, the plot unravels on stage in a seamless blend of filmed and live performance, leaving the audience to decipher which medium they are seeing.”

Below, Kevin Kerr discusses the changes the show will undergo as it moves to Toronto, how social media has affected the marketing of productions like Tear the Curtain, the play as a site-specific piece, and more.

RLBrody.com: How is the show changing as it moves to Toronto?

Kerr: We love the opportunity to revisit, tune, and improve upon a work when we have a chance like this, so started by going back to the script and revised, tweak, found cuts, and in some cases entirely re-wrote scenes we weren’t satisfied with. There were then some adjustments to the film with some new edits and trimming. And that meant some changes in sound and the score. The new venue also required some adjustments in the set design to deal with different dimensions. And because the precision required in the relationship between the film projection and the set there was some strategizing around the technical aspects of the projection in the Bluma. The result, we feel is a tighter, stronger piece overall.

RLB:  How well do you feel the video trailers communicate the feelings, moods and experiences your audiences undergo during a performance of Tear the Curtain? Do you feel there’s a risk in trying to communicate the feeling of a live performance through the 2D medium of a computer monitor?

Kerr: I think the trailer communicates fairly well the tone and style of the piece. Of course the filmic component of the piece is particularly well represented and the trailer feels a lot like a contemporary feature film trailer and it showcases nicely the quality and success of the film-making and Brian Johnson’s beautiful cinematography and Kim’s brilliant direction.

But it’s really impossible to authentically capture the effect of the show in performance — video is never satisfying in the its representation of theatre, and in this case I feel it’s even harder to understand the exact nature of what you’ll see and its effect on you. But I think because the trailer draws exclusively from the film, but watching it you know it’s for a piece of theatre, I hope that it teases at least with a promise of something really exciting and perhaps prompts the viewer to question, “how exactly are they going to do this? What will it look like in performance?”

RLB: Can you talk a little about the social media outreach that’s gone into producing and then touring Tear the Curtain? How did the rise of social media (Twitter, Vimeo, etc) change the process of marketing the play from what it might have been if the production was taking place ten years ago?

Kerr: For starters, it allows a more active dialogue between audience and the company, with our audience being able to follow and share and inject their enthusiasm into our process. It makes promoting or marketing a show much more personal, even with something as simple as the act of commenting on our facebook wall, or twitter account, not to mention the capacity for audience members to engage each other in a dialogue around the work this way.

And visually oriented platforms like vimeo, youtube, flickr, etc. are ideal arenas to share this project (and our other works) as the play is so visually spectacular. The film component of the piece makes for great footage to share on video hosting sites (as seen with the trailer) and production stills are easy to share this way as well on our website and via facebook and twitter, etc. And we’ve worked hard collaborating with our partners at Actors Equity to rethink some of the old models and restrictions around use of imagery or video footage from a work, as the developments in social media have really provided a great way to promote not only the show, but the artists who are literally irreplaceable in the piece.

RLB: From what I’ve read, there’s an interesting relationship about duality between the space and the content of Tear The Curtain in Vancouver. GayVancouver.net talks about how “Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre was transformed into its dual historical personality, as both a venue for film and theatre.” Can you talk about the piece as a site-specific production?

Kerr: The play began with a commission from the Arts Club Theatre, which has a few venues including the Stanley. When we were imagining what we might pitch as a project, we started talking about the Stanley as favourite venue of ours and as we chatted about its interesting dual identity in the city as a once grand old cinema from the golden age of movies, and now this beautifully restored live theatre, with all of that vintage charm, the spark ignited. It felt like a perfect opportunity to take our ongoing exploration of a tension between mediated and immediate performance to a new level with a pitch to create a true film/theatre hybrid where both mediums shared equally the weight of telling the story.

So the Stanley became a sort of character in its own right as we started with the space in our early explorations of possible content. And research into its history and certain specific details (like that it was supposedly originally envisaged as a vaudeville theatre, but quickly rethought as a movie theatre before construction began; or that its first movie was Lillian Gish’s first “talkie” called “One Romantic Night” adapted from a stage play called The Swan; etc.) began to give us clues or touchstones as we started to develop the story.

So the dual identity of the building was a departure point to the dual identity of the form of the piece (film/theatre), which itself reflects the content: a character who is faced with a crisis of a fractured sense of self and caught between the forces of the avant garde and the mainstream — each one dangerously seductive in their own way.

RLB: When someone talks about “pushing the boundaries of conventional theatre”, what do you think those boundaries are? In what ways is pushing those boundaries a conscious choice, and in what ways is it something that happens because of the subject matter? (Particularly in relation to immersive theater experiences, such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.)

Kerr: I suppose conventional theatre (as we understand it in Canada) assumes such things as the primacy of the text (or the spoken word or the playwright); the separation of the audience from the aesthetic of the production; the narrative neutrality of the venue; the adherence to a unified genre, form, or style; the notion of a packaged “season of plays”; the actor as some sort of shape shifter, channeler, or avatar that becomes the character; the design as embellishment or illustration; the director as interpreter (over creator) among other conventions.

 

None of these conventions is inherently wrong, and we’ve exemplified them all at various times in our works. But I think we’ve also deliberately challenged them all regularly. Often it is primarily because the piece demands a break from convention, but it also conscious choice — a recognition that theatre is a living changing organism that suffers when stuck looking back; that many of those conventions can exclude the audience, or maybe worse pacify, and they can also oppress the creative process and limit the artistic conversation which wants to keep up with an accelerating world. Most importantly, we want theatre to be something that celebrates and manifests our connection between each other, that excites and provokes our active imagination, that recognizes our the beauty of our living and temporary physical forms, and that acknowledges us all as the constant inventors of the world we live in, moment to moment.

 

Thank you to Kevin Kerr for an interview that sheds a lot of light on the process and product associated with Tear the Curtain’s Toronto production. The show runs from October 7-20th, opening the 2012-2013 season at Canadian Stage; the production will take place at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E). Tickets range from $24 to $99 and are available by phone at 416.368.3110, online at www.canadianstage.com, or in person at the box office.

Look forward to my review of Tear the Curtain, coming later this month. Subscribe to the blog to make sure you don’t miss it, and check out the show’s video trailer on Vimeo.

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An Exercise in Editing, or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed

From the back cover of THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. The following quotes, from other writers in what one might call “related genres,” are meant to draw attention to the positive features of Collins’ work.

Go ahead. Read ’em.

Note that each of these quotes, from luminaries and sources including Stephen King (Entertainment Weekly), Stephanie Meyer (OMG she’s OBSESSED), and John Greer (The New York Times Book Review), talks about the plotting and structure of THE HUNGER GAMES.

Not a single one of the back cover comments brings up the question of the quality of the book’s prose. 

There are many reasons this might be the case: the marketing team may have learned that putting quotes about suspenseful page-turners sell more copies and left out things like “Collins’ prose challenges some of the greats of our era with its artistry and subtle evocation of the stresses that authoritarian governments manufacture to maintain control of their populations.” They could have left out, “Her words added an emotional depth and clarity to this packed, well-paced story.” They could have left out lots of things. I haven’t looked up the full reviews.

My personal feeling is that they cherry-picked quotes about pacing because THE HUNGER GAMES suffers from a case of seriously bad writing.

Which brings us to this blog entry. Collins is an author who presumably worked with an editor to get her words to this pointI presume they both considered it publishable. (And charge-for-able). Editors do a lot of different things when it comes to getting manuscripts ready for publication. One of those things is language. And I think both Collins and her editor fell down hard on that front.

My background with THE HUNGER GAMES:

I read chapters 1-4 on my Kindle when @tyyche gifted me a copy. I was at the tail end of two weeks of intensive editing work on Hot Mess, and while I could certainly see why Collins’ story was an entertaining one, the actual quality of the writing made it impossible for me to continue. I said at the time, and continue to maintain, that my guess is the book translates better to the screen than most adaptations. If I ever see the film, I’ll make sure to let you all know.

Anyways, fast forward to the end of May. My roommate’s copy is lying on the kitchen counter and it’s Memorial Day Weekend and after walking past the book a few times, I think, well, maybe I should pick that up and just breeze through it, so at least when people start defending it on Twitter I can come back with a more informed opinion than the one I have now, which is based on reading four chapters of the thing on a Kindle.

There was no way in hell I was going to start reading the book from the beginning again. I backtracked about a paragraph into chapter 4, then continued with chapter five, which was badly written but at least kept moving, then headed into chapter six. It wasn’t until the last page of chapter six that I became aware of a string of paragraphs I probably would have let go through without too much rewriting: page 85 in my edition, from the point where the Avox girl is picking up Katniss’ unitard (UNITARD!) to the end of the chapter. This was the first time that the spare, simple voice beneath Collins’ prose really came out to me, and one of the first times (only 85 pages in!) where I felt like Collins had really hit her stride.

Then it was into chapter seven, and that wasn’t any bloody fun at all.

By this time, half of Twitter had figured out that I was actually reading the book I’d been complaining about for months, and I started getting snarky comments from my co-writer, Eric, particularly because I’d given him such a hard time back when he did the reviews of the first book for The Masquerade Crew. One thing led to another and when I started talking about how what I actually want to do is a top-to-toe rewrite on the entire thing, and I half wanted to do red marks all over a page from the book and show people what my editing process was like, Eric challenged me to do precisely that.

So everything after the break is his fault.
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