Monday, December 12, 2011

Getting my geek on

In which our Diva babbles about supernatural housemates for fun and no profit

I mentioned Being Human briefly in my last post, but in my other life as an  Unapologetic Squeeing Fangirl, I've been known to go on at far, far greater length and in rather exhaustive detail. :-)

Fortunately for me, there are other people who go in for that sort of thing, including the ever-charming Andy, host of the "Being Human Cast" podcast. Recently he was kind enough to invite me back for a third time as guest host, to discuss "Adam's Family" (series 3, episode 2), and the episode is now live on their site and on iTunes.  If you're a fan of the show, give us a listen, and please stop by the podcast website to leave a comment!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wholesome and good for most uses

In which our Diva checks out the view from the Victorian mom zone

A few years ago, a stage manager said to me, "You know, you're the most wholesome person I know." Before I could do more than smile, she followed it up with, "But I mean it as a good thing!"

Then, as now, I thought, what the heck does it say about us -- as theatre people, and as a larger culture -- that "wholesome" is presumed insulting until proven otherwise?

Now, I've got nothing against dark, violent, and/or morally slippery stories and characters in and of themselves. (As anyone who's known me for more than, oh, maybe 45 minutes can attest.)  What I am getting pretty tired of, though, is the cynical notion that these are the only stories worth telling in our imperfect world. The utterly threadbare, but still ubiquitous, belief that happy relationships, happy people, are inherently boring. That any apparent goodness in human nature must be fake, or foolish gullibility, or somehow self-serving.

The truth is, unrelenting "grit" and grimness isn't any more accurate a reflection of reality than unalloyed Pollyanna perk. And a philosophy insisting upon it is certainly not the be-all and end-all of depth or maturity. In fact, it's pretty darn adolescent in my book. And has been since I was an adolescent. If brighter stories don't hold the interest of your personal taste, that's fine, but the moment you start claiming some sort of moral or intellectual superiority because of it, I will laugh at you. A lot. (My lack of patience with snobbery of pretty much any kind is well-documented.)

This topic pops up in my head every once in a while, and of course it's on my mind as I head down the tech week rabbit hole for Little Women. Not only a musical, but one based on a novel intended primarily for younger readers, published in 1868/69, in which the most violent act is the immolation of the only copy of a novel manuscript. There are no villains -- even the society girls and their marriage-conscious mothers, who would be shallow mean-girl caricatures in virtually any other hands, are defended in the novel's narrative as acting in good faith for reasons they mistakenly consider important -- and it would be easy to assume there's no conflict and therefore no story.

The truth is, there's plenty of conflict, among the adolescent March sisters and with the outside world, just on a subtler scale and with a lighter touch than our current culture has trained us to appreciate. Even our comic-book heroes are expected to be angst-ridden and "gritty" or risk being dismissed as cheesy, sentimental, two-dimensional. I hadn't realized just how tired I was of that until I was unexpectedly delighted this past summer by a recap of Captain America that (amid the hilarity) articulated perfectly why it was my favorite of the season's surfeit of comics adaptations:
Steve was chosen for the program because, as a physically weak man, he knows the power of strength better than anyone else. Steve says “Thanks…I think.” It‘s a good thing, Steve! I really like that these actors and the script can make this seem like it isn’t a hackneyed concept. A lot of reviews have discussed the nostalgia inherent in this film, and I think that’s true, but I also think that these ideas that seem nostalgic–earnestness, a desire to do what’s right, the lack of MISERY AND DARKNESS at the hero’s core that explains everything about who he is (Christopher Nolan’s Batman, my laundry hamper is not a good hiding place)–are just things that we’ve forgotten are actually good things as a society. Pop culture is so entrenched with characters that have ~dark secrets~, even the good guys, so somebody like Steve Rogers comes along and we don’t know what to do with him. I’m glad that the movie’s doing well and I’m glad that people are responding positively to him, because sweetness and light is not a sustainable course for films to take, but it really doesn’t hurt to have a hero you can get behind 100% every few years. You can’t get behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman 100%, because he’ll probably kill you in your sleep without even meaning to. That guy’s crazy.
Speaking of comics adaptations (although I haven't read the source in this case), The Walking Dead continues to get critical and audience accolades, and remains a fixture of Sunday nights in my living room. Talk about relentlessly grim -- a post-zombie-apocalypse storyscape whose creator has stated outright that it's about what the state of the world does to people. Throughout the second season, without getting too spoilery, I've gotten ever more frustrated with the way the group tends to take the most honest and generous characters -- T-Dawg and especially Glenn -- for granted, and pleased to see other characters and the narrative finally start pointing out that injustice. The story emphasis on the festering secret of Lori and Shane's adultery, and the mounting evidence that adultery is the least of what Shane is capable of, quickly wore thin for me, but led to what I consider a key moment: when Lori interrupts Shane's latest hackneyed self-serving speech about "making the hard choices" to tell it like it is: "There's nothing hard about cutting our losses and running."

"Life is pain, Highness," Westley says to Buttercup in The Princess Bride, "and anyone who tries to tell you differently is selling something."  He's not wrong, but he's not right either, and even at that moment he knows better himself. It's all a test. (For which I spend a good half of both novel and movie wanting to smack him, but let's avoid that tangent for the moment.)

Back when I first fell in love with Being Human (the UK original, though there's a lot I like about the SyFy version as well), I summed up its core thusly: "Life is frequently and drastically unfair, but we find ways to make it worthwhile anyway." As that show has evolved into something larger and darker, it's sometimes struggled to hold onto that core and the close bonds of the constructed family at its heart, but the message remains.

There's nothing hard about cutting our losses. There's nothing hard about dismissal and mockery and hipster cynicism. Finding a balance... Ah, that one's a little trickier.

Circling this back around to my current theatrical endeavor, it's all too easy to dismiss the seemingly small dramas of the March family as quaint, fluffy, irrelevant to our 21st-century experience. And it's a mistake.

Little Women runs four performances only, December 10-18, 2011, at the Cosman Cultural Center in Huntley, Illinois. Visit the GreenRoom Productions website for details.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Women's Work

In which our Diva heads back on stage and back in time

One of the best groups of theatre people anywhere, Babes With Blades, has a fabulous in-depth New Plays Development Program, and much to my delight they've invited me to be part of it again. I'm one of the cast for the public reading of Deeds Not Words: The Rise of The Jujitsu Suffragettes by Anne Bertram, which tells the complex story of members of the Women's Social and Political Union fighting for the vote. I had the opportunity to take part in a closed reading earlier in the development process, so it's extra cool to see how the play has evolved and be there for its first bow in front of an audience.

There's far more history here than can be told in a single play, of course, but it's a fascinating story that I think will engage audiences while they're in the theatre and hopefully afterward too.  It's not just about how a group of suffrage activists came together with Edith Garrud to learn to defend themselves with martial arts in a manner one might not immediately associate with middle-class British ladies in 1913. The fracturing of the movement, the personal cost as leaders began to move in different political directions, is at the heart of the drama. It's a story well worth the telling.

The public reading of Deeds Not Words will be held at The Second Stage (3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago) at 1 p.m. on October 22. Admission is free.

After that (well, in the midst of it, actually, since the rehearsal schedules are concurrent) I'll be doing my first musical (yay!!) in several years, as Marmee in Little Women with GreenRoom Productions. I picked up the book from the library on the way home from work, since I last read it when I was about 9. It's... large. I don't remember it being that large. Mind you, I was a pretty hardcore reader as a kid, so it doesn't really surprise me that I don't remember it being daunting or anything. I do remember it being an emotional rollercoaster, and the snippets I've heard so far of the show's score (it's a different adaptation from the one produced on Broadway a few years back) promise to serve that purpose very well indeed. I'm excited to revisit it as an adult, with an eye toward identifying with Marmee instead of Jo! (I always feel like I should pick one of the other girls, like identifying with Jo is a bit cliche, but, well.)

Little Women runs two weekends, December 10-18, at the Cosman Theater in Huntley, IL.  Tickets are $20 in advance ($15 for students and seniors), and will be available online at the GreenRoom website sometime shortly after their current production of Doubt closes.

If you can make it to either or both shows, I'd love to see you!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Autumn in Hollywood Midwest

In which our Diva ponders leaves falling and cameras rolling

Long time, no blog, once again. Oops.  Part of that I can blame on a one-two punch of a nasty summer cold and a sneaky computer virus that took out both my netbook and my desktop within 24 hours.  I've also been auditioning a lot and doing a little bit of background work on a couple of TV shows.

Being an extra is a funny thing. I joke a lot about people thinking of actors as weird parts of the set that move on their own, but with background, that's almost literally true. This living room would look weird without a couch, so we put one in it.  This party would look weird without people milling around, so we put them there.  It's not really acting, but it can be a good time, and it's a great way to learn about how things work on a big-time set.

So far this year, I've worked on the new series Boss, which premieres on Starz in October, and the second season of Showtime's Shameless.  Like a lot of shows set in Chicago, past and present, the latter mostly shoots in L.A., but they do come here for more than just second-unit establishing shots, bringing the principal cast a couple times a year for a week or so at a time, and that work is definitely appreciated by extras and local crew members alike.

The former, though, is part of what we're starting to see more of: A series filmed entirely in Chicago, studio scenes and all. That increased activity has been rendered feasible by several factors, including the renewal of the 30% tax credit for another ten years by the state legislature, but a definite linchpin has been the opening of Cinespace Chicago in the defunct Ryerson Steel complex. For a while there, it looked like the studio facility -- a new venture of a company that already runs a successful production complex in Toronto -- wasn't going to happen.  There'd been buzz when they first made the deal for the Ryerson property, but then the estimated timetable for opening the first stage came and went, and I didn't hear anything more.

And then I did: In addition to Boss, the studio was home to portions of Transformers 3 and the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. Then, a day after Fox's gut-punch cancellation of last season's The Chicago Code -- which made its home at the already-established Chicago Studio City -- local talent and crew got a shot of good news in NBC's pickup of The Playboy Club, which is now occupying pretty much every available inch of Cinespace through December.  This summer has also seen visits from the superhero pilot Powers and (briefly) from the Man of Steel himself.  (But Batman went and abandoned us for Pittsburgh. That's just rude, Mr. Wayne.) 

That's a lot of activity. We've got room for more! And it's especially heartening to see them casting minor speaking roles as well as extras locally, as well as opportunities for area natives like Jennifer Beals to come home to work for a while.  On Boss, I lucked into a featured-extra spot with the campaigning governor, played by Steppenwolf veteran Francis Guinan, who has managed to remain Chicago-based while building a solid character-actor career. I'd love to be able to do that.

Everyone says you have to go where the work is, and there's no denying the truth of that. But here's hoping Chicago continues to be where more and more of the work is.  We've got the people, and increasingly we have the infrastructure. The success of the productions that are already here will help that grow. Here's hoping!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bunnies and buzzwords

In which our Diva is officially tired of the word "empowerment"

In the wake of The Playboy Club's moment in the spotlight at the annual Television Critics Association press tour, debate is bouncing around the internet about just what the show means. Personally, I think what it means is really damn complicated, and that's exactly what I like about it. Is what I'm about to say colored by the fact that the show is being produced in Chicago and employing some of my friends and colleagues? Probably. But that's not the only reason I want it to be good and do well.

Some people, notably Melissa Silverstein over at the indispensible Women and Hollywood, have zeroed in on the comments by cast members asserting that the position of their characters is proto-feminist and "progressive."  There's more skepticism about this than I think the the comments actually warrant, though Silverstein is right that Amber Heard's attempt to explain her position didn't quite say what I think she intended it to. From my vantage point, sandwiched between Heard's generation and Gloria Steinem's, I can see both perspectives, and where and how they're missing each other. I've never hesitated to call myself a feminist, but it's not hard to see why many younger women do, and it's not quite the reason I've often seen put forth by their elders. Not so much that they think it entails various other political baggage, but that they have been repeatedly told that it does.

If I'm honest, I have to say I have more sympathy for those young women's position, because I've listened to those who paved the way before me, and heard how often what they have to say sounds an awful lot like "We didn't fight for your right to make your own choices just to have you make the WRONG choices!" How it sounds like going any way but theirs makes you an ungrateful wretch who's setting The Entire Cause Of Women back by decades. Think that sounds melodramatic? Check out the three, count 'em, three indignant comments on the W&H post by judybrowni, who apparently considers childish namecalling to be the appropriate response here. There is no quicker way to send my estimation of you into the toilet than to call any other woman a "bimbo" -- hey, how about throwing in "whore" or "witch" while you're at it? -- and tossing in "know-nothing" and "anorexic" (people still think that's okay? seriously?) into the bargain, along with rampant ageism and repeated implications that acting  isn't "real work" (And what possesses people from various walks of life to tell people from other walks of life that what they do for a living is invalid? It never, ever fails to sound petty and foolish.), pretty much seals the deal.

But I digress. I do think Heard's statement, as quoted in the post, was ill-chosen, and the whole spin of "it's all about empowerment" (although, has anyone from NBC actually used that overworked word, or is it coming from the press? h/t to Mizzelle for confirmation, via this NPR article, that yes, it seems to have started with executive producer Chad Hodge) is ill-advised. And Silverstein is right that the spin is what it's about at this stage of the game, but I'm a bit baffled as to why she -- who writes compellingly about the industry every day, and knows how the spin works and how little it often has to do with the actual product -- seems to be letting it color her impression of the show so much. I doubly scratched my head at this:
Me thinks this young woman better have a damn good show or she should just shut the fuck up and admit she’s on a show that’s about women wearing bunny costumes trying to get by in the world where it was really difficult for single women to get jobs that would pay a decent wage.  You see if they framed it that way, I could potentially be interested.
I... really don't understand how that's not what's being said. I honestly don't. That's exactly the impression I get from the interview videos on NBC's website, and at the Twitter stream from the press conference, and NBC's own description of the show as "a sophisticated series about the transitional times of the early 1960s and the complex lives of a group of working-class women."

One of the places I've seen that last quote is in this article over at Fangirltastic, in which regular contributor Theron expresses skepticism that the show will ultimately prove to be anything more than a standard-issue prime-time soap. She also touches on the much-publicized call to boycott by the Parents Television Council. And while I'm skeptical of the PTC's "Playboy = pornography = unalloyed evil" position, it has raised in advance issues that are relevant, and which seem like they will actually be part of the show. I've seen several comments in various places pointing out the tendency of many people to conflate Bunnies (hostesses/servers in the Playboy Clubs) with Playmates (nude models in the magazine). With this important distinction in mind, I was struck in the trailer by Brenda (Naturi Naughton) bluntly and proudly declaring her ambition to be "the first chocolate centerfold."  There are multiple thorny issues wrapped up in that one line -- the divide between Bunny and Playmate and what it means when one woman sees the first as a stepping stone to the second; our culture's unsettled relationship with a woman who chooses to trade on her sexuality as a commodity; the fetishization of race. (The last is particularly interesting in light of the way Naughton has embraced the "chocolate Bunny" label in her own press statements.)

"You're either the living, breathing fantasy that is the Playboy Bunny," admonishes senior Bunny Carol-Lynne (Laura Benanti), "or you're not." Hugh Hefner tweeted earlier this evening, "Was being a Playboy Club Bunny in the 1960s empowering or exploitation? Why not ask the original Bunnies themselves? They'll tell you."

I don't have one to ask, but it seems to me the only honest answer is "both." That's certainly what I'm looking forward to in the show, based on the glimpses NBC has given us. And if that seems nostalgic or irrelevant, take a look at this photo from NBC's mock Playboy Club at the recent San Diego Comic Con, of a Bunny flanked by two Tilted Kilt servers. Time warp, anyone?

So, bottom line: We're looking at a show about a very messy and complicated time and place for women. At least, I hope that's what they'll let it be. Because the messy and the complicated haven't entirely left us, and that's the story I'm interested in seeing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Shameless plug time

In which our Diva is, well, shameless

Keep meaning to write nice meaty posts on a couple of topics, keep not quite getting to it. Until I manage it, here are a few things that have come down the pike since my last post:

Photographer Daryl Darko's new book Cemetery People is now available for ordering, and looks amazing! You can preview it on the linked site. I'm delighted to be featured among the eclectic mix of people captured by Daryl's lens.

From visual to auditory, Elgin OPERA is back with the "Festival of Singers" at Villa Verone from 6-8 pm every Sunday evening through August. I got all involved in setting up my new computer this weekend, and completely forgot to let you lovely folks know I'd be singing last night. D'oh! But I'll be back next week (July 24), and probably a couple of Sundays in August, contingent on my schedule. I'll confirm the dates ASAP.

Resonance is starting to gain momentum, with new cells popping up all over the place! So excited to see what stories the community will come up with to expand the world. The first Chicago video scene is now live, with more being planned for shooting as the summer progresses, along with in-character blog and social media content, and an experiment or three in storytelling in different media. We're currently looking for a logo design for the fictional record label that figures into our story. So here's that key question... Will you help?

In the meantime, you can see Beth and Alice get together to catch up on life since Alice moved to L.A., and compare notes on the early stages of their investigation. This was edited from about 20 minutes of improvised material, shot by the terrific Adam Daniels. The folks at Bistrot Margot could not have been more friendly and helpful, and we had ourselves a yummy brunch besides! If you're looking for a great meal in the Old Town neighborhood, you won't go wrong there.

It's the nature of guerrilla filmmaking that something will always go wrong, and in this case it was the input from our body mikes suddenly deciding not to work when we were actually shooting, even though they were fine when we tested twice! Our experiment with homegrown ADR was also, unfortunately, less than successful. I managed to clean up a lot of the traffic noise, but it and the music at the restaurant still definitely intrude on the scene, so you might want to watch with the captions turned on. (Click the little "CC" near the right-hand end of the video's control bar.)

Onward and upward!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

It's here!

In which our Diva is available on podcast and DVD

Two and half years after our time at the Icebox Inn (not unusual for an indie feature), Cyrus: Mind of a Serial Killer is out on DVD today! I'm honored to be part of such a knockout cast, and proud to have played sidekick to the fabulous Patricia Belcher.

My friend (and fellow Resonance collaborator) Mary Czerwinski is co-host of DVD Geeks on Fearless Radio, and she was kind enough to invite me on for a brief interview to go with their review of the flick on this week's show. Check out the podcast on their site. Mary and John have the skinny on the new releases every Monday night, and I can guarantee you they know their stuff!

Speaking of Resonance, we're planning plots and plotting plans for new Chicago story content and clues in a couple different formats. Look for a link or two by the weekend, and be sure to follow the Twitter feed or Facebook page to keep up with the latest developments.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Do you believe?

Things are moving fast in the Resonance world today! As I type this, the summer party is probably still going strong in London, though it's fast approaching 1 am there. I'd be lying if I claimed not to have a pang at not making it over there this time, but it's been fun to watch various attendees tweeting about it, and I'm looking forward to more pictures and impressions once they've gone home and gotten some rest. (On balance, probably just as well I'm home this time -- besides having lots to do as the project moves into its next phase, it's a busy production time in Chicago, with lots of auditions and background work going on, and I don't need to be missing those!)

In conjunction with the event, lots of content has become publicly available today that wasn't before. The eight-minute mini-pilot, "The Morning After," has previously been presented at several events in addition to being shared with team members. Now it's at your fingertips in all its HD glory, ripe for the puzzling!

At the same time, the call for engagement from our audience has gone out on the main Facebook page, together with an FAQ guide to how to go about getting involved. (Click on the "Discussions" tab at the left-hand side of the page.) This includes a link to "The Story," a detailed summary of the beginning events in the core narrative (more than I knew before today, and I've been working on this project for months!), which  highlights opportunities to hook your ideas into the story.

Meanwhile, there's still some technical work to be done on the first scene in our Chicago story, but until then, we've posted a phone conversation between Alice (Mary Czerwinski) and Beth (me) that kicks off the investigation that will lead them... well, you'll just have to see, won't you?

If you want to make a "The Morning After," you need a full-blown TV crew under a kickass director like Colin Teague. But that's not the only way to start a story.

What will be yours? I'd love to see!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

She left the web, she left the loom

In which our Diva boosts a signal

If you follow and/or the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood blog, you probably know that the family of their creator, the lovely and dedicated Stephanie Pina, is going through some trying times involving large medical bills.

Enter WAG Screen, producers of the amazing-looking independent film version of The Lady of Shalott that Stephanie has been plugging on her blogs from the beginning. For the next five weeks, 50% of proceeds from DVD sales of the film go to benefit this family in need.

The online community of Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasts is far-flung, and Stephanie's sites are two of the key meeting points. If you've seen her posts or others about the film and thought about checking it out, or if this is the first you've heard of it, now is the perfect time to order it and help give back to one of our own.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

We Create Resonance

In which our Diva heads into a busy summer

Last week was one of my craziest ever, and that's saying something! It was funny -- as of Sunday night, my evenings were entirely free, but by Monday night, the calendar was a wall-to-wall patchwork of deadlines, auditions, day-job shifts, and a day as an extra on Boss, a new Starz series starring Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago. (I didn't work with him, but I did have a nice featured spot in the scene, and had a great time with the instant family they assigned me to that morning. You never know what's going to happen with background work, which is really the fun part.)

Bit more time to breathe this week, but still a lot to get done. In the midst of it, I came in contact online the other day with a writer/producer who was kind enough to share with me a draft of his script in development. There's a lot for his company to do before there's an opportunity to audition for the character I immediately fell in love with, and of course there are never any guarantees of anything. But it's nice to dream and to turn over this potential person in my head.

One week from today is the summer Resonance event. I'm not off to London this time around, alas, but I'm planning to be there by Skype. If you're in the UK, why not sign up to attend? You can meet the team, learn where we go from here and how you can help, and then tell me all about it afterward! :-)

If you're not in that neck of the woods (or even if you are), visit the Resonant Object Facebook page for instructions on submitting a video postcard to be part of the evening's presentation. It doesn't have to be terribly fancy; here's my team's contribution:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Rose, rose, rose red

In which our Diva is heard but not yet seen

Take a gander at the lovely and spooky teaser for Rose White! As previously noted, my role is a small one, so I didn't expect to appear in the teaser at all. But my voice does (and thankfully doesn't sound as ragged as it felt that night)!

Even though I was only on set a few hours, the great group of people involved in this unique film (who continue to work hard) have welcomed me as part of the family, and I look forward to all their hard work and dedication being rewarded with a great reception for it. Fingers crossed!

Rose White Teaser from Dan Kuhlman on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quantum characterization

In which our Diva wears her geekitude on her sleeve

I had the weirdest thought in the shower this morning, and it's been circling around my head all day, picking up threads and particles of thoughts that weren't initially attached to it. (I was having a Monday disguised as a Wednesday at my day job, so it injected an interesting dimension into solving the various little crises that were pinging at my head.) It was a thought in my head, which is to say it doesn't necessarily fit in language very well, but it more or less boils down to "Character motivation is like quantum physics."

Don't get scared off by that. It's actually pretty simple (as long as you're not trying to do the math). See, it sort of came out of something I've said a lot lately in some pretty disparate conversations, which is that nobody ever does anything for just one reason. And this morning, that led to a wider "nothing happens for just one reason." Which led (because this is the sort of thing my brain does all day long, and actually it's on the more linear/sane end of the scale) to the principle that every particle of matter in the universe is subject to the gravitational field of every other particle of matter in the universe. From where you sit, of course, the overwhelming majority of the matter in the universe is too far away for its gravitational pull on you to be even remotely measurable, but it's not actually zero.

Even more fun, quantum probability says that there's a chance -- again, ridiculously, immeasurably tiny, but not zero -- that some particle waaaaaaaaaaay over there will suddenly decide to be right here instead. For no reason that we yet know of, with no way to entirely accurately predict it.

(The last couple paragraphs are a really really simplified version of ideas you can explore in all kinds of very accessible and readable forms. I'm partial to Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos. They're clear, informal, and full of great analogies featuring everything from Bart Simpson's skateboard to Fox Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster. I'm not even kidding.)

Which brings us back to the shower this morning, and my weird geeky actory thought. Because all of this applies to people too. Which of course means it also applies to characters.

If we think at all about why we do whatever we do at any given moment, it's the immediate influences -- the things with the measurable gravitational field -- we're likely to put it down to. But there are dozens, even hundreds more pieces of "why," a whole universe of little gravitational fields at work. And sometimes, when we least expect it, a stray particle makes a weird quantum jump, from a seemingly unrelated situation or something you experienced years and years ago, to fire something in our brains and say "Do this!" when this might seem from the outside to make no sense at all.

My friend Tara has an oft-repeated saying about writing: "If your characters have to act out of character for your plot to work, your plot doesn't work." And she's absolutely right, but we should be careful about what we say is "out of character." Obviously, a character whose actions seem completely random all the time isn't much of a character. But neither is one who's completely predictable, whose choices always make sense in light of what the audience can immediately observe.

This tends to freak out a lot of writers, I've noticed. Which might explain why so many of them seem to love the old "What's my motivation?" gag when they write actors as characters. It popped up again just a couple days ago on Castle, and was answered with a succinct "To do your job." Which not only made eminent sense, but carried a whole lot of implications for the fictional actor to unpack. Thing is, that fictional actor probably wouldn't have landed that fictional gig if he were that clueless. It often surprises people (presumably because they haven't really thought about it) when I explain that I always roll my eyes at the "what's my motivation?" gag because the very first thing you learn in any acting class, the most rock-bottom basic thing, is that answering that question is your job. The writer tells you what to do. The director tells you how to go about it. It's up to you to determine why you're doing it.

And even you might never know all the reasons. Not really. Because that's just like real people. Other people often give us insights into our own behavior that we never considered, just like audiences (if we're doing it right) find things in our performances that we didn't necessarily consciously put there. One of my favorite things in the world is when someone tells me something about a character of mine that I didn't know when I was playing her.  It's probably a lot of why I gravitate to characters -- whether to watch or to play -- who are a little reckless or even crazy, making the wrong choices and taking the wrong risks and dealing with the consequences, for reasons that don't always make a whole lot of sense. (I'm looking at you, Malcolm Reynolds, and Vicki Nelson, and John Mitchell, and Mary Shannon, and...) There are certain things you can be reasonably sure they'll do or won't do under a given set of circumstances... and then there are the quantum moments. That's when the magic really happens.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Where there's a Will

In which our Diva blogs for Shakespeare's birthday

About six weeks back, NPR's All Things Considered ran a piece on Cliff's Notes entering the digital age with a series of viral videos targeting their student consumers. The story included several disparate opinions on whether this was a good, a bad, or an indifferent thing, as such a story should. The closing interview was with the author of the Cliff's Notes for Hamlet (or possibly Macbeth; I can't remember which, and I can't find the story on NPR's website), who made the point I tend most to agree with, that the purpose of both the videos and the traditional Cliff's Notes guides really is to get students interested in the real material, not to encourage them to skip it.

The way she said it, though, bid fair to give me hives: "If we can get these kids to get a DVD, or better yet, read this wonderful poetry..."

That was about the time I pounded on my steering wheel and yelled aloud in my car, "No! Sitting and reading  it is NOT better! This is why people are afraid of Shakespeare in this country!"

(It's a very good thing I was alone in the car. I'm sure I looked like a complete lunatic to anyone outside of it.)

When I was invited earlier this week to participate in the "Happy Birthday Shakespeare" blog project, that moment was the first thing that came to mind.

Now, if you're a regular reader of this blog, that reaction probably won't surprise you. You already know I don't do well with sitting and reading poetry in general. I know that some people can happily sit and read Shakespeare or poems or whatever silently to themselves just as I would with a novel. I rather envy them. I can't do it. I'll just sit there the whole time thinking "these words are made to be heard," rather than think about what the poetry itself is saying.

Shakespeare, most especially, is meant to be heard. And nobody actually told me that until I was in college. Which is much, much later than they should have, although I was one of the lucky ones, because I had already figured it out for myself. Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, of course, and whichever I could get my hands on (on VHS, in a very small town, in the 1980s) of the BBC productions from the late 70s and early 80s.

When I saw the story enacted, but really most especially when I heard the words, spoken by voices and informed by minds and hearts that knew and felt what they meant, they never made less than perfect sense. All the footnotes in the world can't fill in the nuances of an unfamiliar word the way the human voice can. Shakespeare wrote for voices, to be heard by audiences who largely couldn't read, the words on the page never intended to be anything but a record and a memory guide.

That they have become more than that in the centuries since, of course, is added value. I'm certainly not contesting that, and studying Shakespeare as the written word has led to countless insights into how our minds work, how language evolves, and even whether one man wrote all the words in question. But, meaning no disrespect to those whose passion for the canon lies in it as the written word, it makes me a little nuts that somewhere along the way the added value all but eclipsed the central purpose, at least in the way people meet Shakespeare in our society.

In modern American life, all classical arts are seen as musty and dusty and elitist and difficult to understand, but  with Shakespeare there's this extra layer of challenge because it isn't just that people haven't tried it. They think they've tried it and don't like it, because somebody made them sit and read it. And you can't get them into the theatre because they think it'll feel like that did. Who can blame them?

Not to say that's how it always is, of course -- one of my best friends is a high school English teacher who makes sure her students experience these fantastic plays as much as possible in the way they're intended. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, like so many companies, has a great outreach program for students to experience their productions, in their incredible Courtyard mainstage space. Filmmakers go back to the Shakespeare well over and over again, for both beautiful productions of the actual text or fascinating updates, more and more with young stars and young sensibility, with the energy to take all those extraordinary words into the next century and beyond.

I played my first Shakespeare role -- Mariana in Measure for Measure, of all things, and a more problematic play you won't find in the canon -- in 1994. I played my most recent -- Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, fulfilling a longstanding dream of my own -- last summer. I've been very fortunate to almost always do Shakespeare in intimate spaces, where I can look the audience in the eye. Where I can see young people who've never seen a Shakespeare play (sometimes never a play at all), or adults who never thought they'd like one, light up with understanding at this bawdy joke or that soul-touching insight, even as the words are being spoken.

There's nothing like it. Nothing in the world.

So happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare. I'd have brought a gift, but there's nothing that wouldn't look silly next to the one you gave us. I hope I have the opportunity to keep sharing that gift for years to come, in the way it was meant to be shared.

Visit the Happy Birthday Shakespeare home page for links to dozens of other bloggers sharing dozens of perspectives on the man and the words and the plays. Big thanks to them for asking me to join in!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ready for my closeup

In which our Diva is back in front of the camera

So that film role I mentioned in my last post? Already shot! It's spring, and things are moving fast. As producer and star Deneen Melody has pointed out, the on-screen appearance of Mother in Rose White is brief but dramatically pivotal, and her presence is felt throughout the film. Those few moments were some of the most intense emotional work I've yet done on camera, and I'm excited to see the outcome! Wishing lots of love and energy to the rest of the cast and crew as they continue working. This one's going to be special, I can feel it in my bones.

Check out the fun behind-the-scenes photos from Sunday's shoot over on the film's Facebook page!

No rest for the wicked, as I start dipping my toes into the producer pool myself, with the first Chicago scene for Resonance scheduled to film this Saturday. It's a half-day shoot on a very small scale, just a conversation between two characters that will form the first puzzle pieces of the Resonance narrative events centered in Chicago. But there's lots to do to be ready for even that! To keep abreast of local developments as the story grows and we move ever closer to the launch of public content, check out Resonance Chicago on Facebook.

In the meantime, as an appetizer, the core team has launched, a new home for sneak previews and tidbits. Spread the word! Something is happening...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Once upon a time

In which our Diva ventures into the deep, dark forest

As I've been hinting for a couple days over on Twitter and Facebook, I've been sitting on some good casting news. With the green light from production, I can tell you I'll be playing Mother in Rose White, a dark fantasy retelling of "Snow White and Rose Red."  I'm a sucker for that sort of thing anyway, so it's doubly delightful to be a part of it, and if the concept art and promo photos -- which you can see at the official site and also on the film's Facebook page -- are anything to go by, this thing's gonna be gorgeous. (Also scary and disturbing, but those are pluses in my book.)

It's also a kick to be reunited with the lovely, talented, and very hardworking Deneen Melody, whom I met on Holiday Carvings, and who is branching out into producing for this endeavor. There's a great team on board for filming next month, and I'm excited to meet them all!

I always have to be reminded that "Snow White and Rose Red" is a lesser-known fairy tale, as it's one of my childhood favorites. It's in the Fairy Tales and Rhymes volume of the four-book box set of Little Golden Book compilations I've had as long as I can remember, and the Gustaf Tenggren illustrations are clearly imprinted on my mind's eye.  I just pulled it out and reread it for the first time in ages, and was struck by the calm practicality of the two girls, in the face of tantrum-throwing dwarves and unexpected bears. When life throws them curve balls, they do what they need to do. I'm not giving anything away by saying Rose White won't have the bright illustrations or the standard happy ending, but that core idea is very much intact.

It's one of those funny cultural moments, that this project was already in development when Hollywood went back to the fairy-tale well with Red Riding Hood and Beastly, but of course it's not a well that's going to run dry any time soon. (I had to just sort of stare at someone who thought a horror take on Red Riding Hood was something weird and unheard-of. No judgment on the new movie -- I haven't seen it yet, and I'm not a big fan of the "if it reminds me of anything anyone else has ever done it's pointless" mentality anyway -- but, um, that impression would be incorrect.) The impulse to strip away the protective coating from fairy tales and expose their often-dark hearts is a compelling one, fueling films, novels, and notably the long-running Vertigo comic series Fables, in which Snow White (who is also the one with the dwarves) and Rose Red have a very complex sisterly relationship indeed.

Kid stuff, right? ;->

Song for today: "Rose Red," of course. The track that got me hooked on Emilie Autumn riffs on the folk song, which some people interpret as a veiled reference to the Wars of the Roses (for slightly more plausible reasons than the old saw about "Ring Around the Rosy" being about the Black Plague), and which in any case appears to be unrelated to the fairy tale. But I love it a lot, and it's a perfect auditory complement to the stunning Rose White promo art.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Scarlet X trailer

In which our Diva has been looking forward to this

And I'm pretty excited about how it looks. I've had a great time creating the character of Scarlet, and am looking forward to digging in and shooting more this spring/summer. In the meantime, I don't have a date yet for the release of the first webisode (time is the enemy of indie projects everywhere!), but it shouldn't be too terribly long, and I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I knew who I was when I woke up this morning

In which our Diva is once again thankful for Netflix recommendations

Watched the most unexpectedly extraordinary movie yesterday: Phoebe in Wonderland. It was actually my husband who picked up the recommendation, and the DVD has been sitting on our coffee table for a bit, since we've both been pretty occupied lately. But we finally sat down to watch today, and what we thought was going to be a lightweight tale of a socially awkward little girl finding a place to fit in her school play turned out to be quite a lot more complex. It quickly becomes clear that nine-year-old Phoebe (an engaging and achingly truthful Elle Fanning) is not just awkward, but exhibiting increasingly disruptive compulsive behaviors she can't understand or control. The adults in her life are well-meaning but heartbreakingly, humanly imperfect: The new drama teacher who can relate perhaps a little too well. The mother who hymns the virtues of being "different" and doesn't want her child "labeled." The father who says "we can choose not to do things that hurt other people" to a child who feels that choice repeatedly jerked out of her reach. It's hard to watch at times, with a frightened nine-year-old saying "I need help" over and over again, and so many times I just wanted to grab people by the shoulders and yell, "This is not a neurotypical child! Stop asking her to respond like one!" But it's full of moments of magic, too, and ends positively and realistically, with an actionable diagnosis and a recognition that it's just the start, but already so, so much better.

The film is amazing on its own merits, but also addresses something very close to my heart as an actor and sometime instructor. Several years ago, before moving to Chicago, I was involved with the Columbus Rec & Parks Davis Performing Arts Programs, assisting with costumes and teaching stage combat. (I still love the looks on some people's faces when I quip that the city of Columbus used to pay me to give swords to teenagers!) I'm thankful they're still around, though economic reality has forced them to scale down the class schedule and charge the kids to participate. When I was there, it was still free for any kid who lived in the park district (encompassing some suburbs as well as Columbus proper), and the Davis Center was the social hub for a slew of youngsters, some homeschooled, others just lacking another compatible outlet, as well as the place they learned skills and told stories that for many represented the first time they had done something that felt like it mattered. There are a dozen reasons it breaks my heart to see arts education inexorably chipped away, not only in our schools but in the alternative programs that arose to fill that gap, but this is probably the main one. I think of the kids I knew so well, who've grown into adults with amazing, fulfilling lives, and wonder what those lives would be if they hadn't been there.

Theatre (or sports, or whatever pursuit helps a kid to connect to what will make them a whole adult) isn't a cure for psychological issues, and another reason to recommend Phoebe in Wonderland is that it knows that. But for so, so many people, it is an incredibly valuable building block in an effective coping strategy. And (as the movies sometimes forget to tell you), it's not perfect. I think of the 14-year-old whose impulse control wasn't equal to my one-warning policy regarding weapons safety rules, and whom I was forced to remove from his part in the Romeo and Juliet street brawl as a result. He was still in the show, but he had to watch from the sidelines while the rest of the cast dusted it up to thunderous applause. And that wasn't comfortable for anyone, certainly not me.

I also think of the same kid coming up to me three years later to thank me for not letting him off the hook.

And lest we think it's just about my chosen art as an educational tool: I have so, so many colleagues who are adults with ADHD, depression, alcoholism, autism-spectrum disorders, you name it. Who are the counterparts of those kids, grown up and thriving, the ones for whom the coping tool grew into a vocation. Some of the most mesmerizing, intense performances I've ever had the privilege to witness have come out of people that, in most environments, are perceived as bright and nice enough, but difficult and exhausting to be around. People who might not last a day in the typical workplace. I've watched them take that chaotic energy and focus it like a laser, to create something phenomenal, because something in the way we work as actors has given them the tool they needed to do that.

You don't have to be crazy to be in this business. But sometimes it really does help. And not in the way that means you have to be tortured and miserable, either!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Five things make a post

In which our Diva is kind of a wee bit all over the place tonight, and rolling with it

Watch: Mao's Last Dancer, which I had never heard of until it happened to be one of the movies on my flight back from London. A bit heavy-handed at times, as these things tend to be, but generally an interesting biopic and the dancing is superb and (a clincher for me) mostly even filmed well. The funny thing is, I got about ten minutes into it and went "Wait, everyone is calling this guy Li, and he's arriving in Houston in 1981... OMG, is this about Li Cunxin?"

See, I actually saw him dance Swan Lake on Houston Ballet's tour in 1982, in the midst of my hardcore ballet-baby phase, an occasion memorable for being the first time I saw ballet of that caliber in person. If I'd thought about it when I was older, I would have realized it was almost a given that his life story would be a dramatic one, but I hadn't, and I had no idea. And (unsurprisingly, given that ballet has its politics and mercenary side just like everything else) not all the drama was the fault of the Chinese government.

Bruce Greenwood with a British accent (as artistic director Ben Stevenson) is a little blink-inducing, but once you get used to it he works well. Of the three actors playing Cunxin, it's actually the middle one, Chengwu Guo -- covering his teenage years in Beijing -- who impressed me most, as both actor and dancer.  It gets a little on the soapy side, but nobody (except maybe Madame Mao, who was kind of a living caricature anyway) comes off as either a saint or a villain.  It's a collection of flawed people with their own goals and agendas, some of whom happen to dance gloriously.

Eat: Ancho Chili BBQ Burrito at Qdoba. Ridiculously good. And reheats well, which is important, since it's one of those burrito-as-big-as-your-head places, so the thing is easily two meals.

Read:  The "Walker Papers" series by C.E. Murphy. I've been doing pretty much all research reading lately, and it's great stuff, but I picked up the fifth book, Demon Hunts, just in time to have some lighter travel reading for the trip to England. Joanne Walker has all the most fun "standard" urban-fantasy-heroine traits -- notably a very hard head, in both the literal and figurative senses -- and a few that are very much her own.  Plus an interesting cosmology, a great support structure of interesting characters, a personal life that's engagingly complicated without crossing the blurry line into paranormal romance, and (at least so far) nary a vampire in sight. Which, as you know if you read much urban fantasy, is worth noting. Not that I'm not demonstrably quite fond of the fangy types in a variety of flavors, of course, but it's nice to have a universe that does things a little differently.

Do?: Spring fever has hit me early this year, partly because -- due directly to the wicked cool stunt work you can catch a glimpse of in the Resonance trailer -- I'm having an attack of see-something-cool-and-want-to-try-it with respect to parkour. Which may or may not be practical (given my schedule, dodgy knees, and questionable upper-body strength), but I've been watching Jump City on G4, reading articles and watching videos on, and eyeing the mentions of beginner jams on the Chicago Parkour site. For all that it looks pretty outside most days, of course, it's still too chilly for me to want to actually be out there if I can help it, but I can smell spring, darnit!

All this is proving once again that part of me is still the slightly reckless eight-year-old who was prone to things like taking a friend's big brother's go-cart (the old-school home-built kind you may have heard about from Bill Cosby) down a rather steeper incline than it was, strictly speaking, intended for. Suffice it to say the cart and I parted company well before the bottom, and I arrived there with noticeably less skin than I'd started with. (And yes, this coincided with the hardcore ballet-baby phase. I'm a complex creature. *g*)

Listen: I'm always behind the curve with pop music -- I have no patience for commercial radio, and most often find music I like because it appears in movies or TV shows I like, or because it's used for fannish music videos -- so I only recently downloaded Paramore's Brand New Eyes. The first track, "Careful," is getting a lot of repetition on my MP3 player because I've mentally adopted it as the theme song of a Chicago-based Resonance character. (I'll tell you who when she goes public, and you can decide for yourself how well it fits.) But it's "Brick By Boring Brick" that has the video I keep rewatching.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

You have no idea who you are

In which our Diva has a resonating good time in London

"Something is happening." Tantalizing words on the front page of the Resonance website, and the name of the event held in London last Friday to celebrate what we've been building for months (or longer, for a few of the core team).

Annie, Dorina, Phil Marriott, Barry Pilling and I enjoy the
party. Thanks to Dorina for the photo!
Various "cells" of the project came together at Paramount, 31 stories above Soho, to share glimpses of their work. The beta version of a smartphone game app that will draw real-world locations into the
Resonance world (and which involves the "bee" graphics that now include the one I customized to represent the Chicago story, with the four stars of the municipal flag). The first comic story (yeah, eventually I'll accept that everything's a "graphic novel" now, but in my old-school fangirl brain that term still has a more specific definition, and I'm not quite there yet). Language and history background pointing up the global reach of the narrative being built.  The first live-action scene featuring ancillary characters created and fleshed out through the process that, now that the framework is created and tested, will soon be expanded to new communities.

At my little table, my Yank accent and I gave a peek into the wiki set up for my team to facilitate collaboration on the story we're building, a mystery at the nexus of Chicago politics, business, and organized crime, which will stand on its own as well as linking into the central narrative of Resonance and the trail of the mysterious Object.

Funny thing about explaining things to other people: it's often a great way to clarify things for yourself. What began as simply the best tool for the job -- a centralized place to develop characters and story elements -- has become a microcosm of the "open source narrative" philosophy of the project. And not just because the MediaWiki engine it's built with is open source software.

With each person's contributions, and especially the links between them that are so easy to create in the wiki format, the framework of the story grows stronger, the picture more complete. At more than one point in the afternoon presentation, I watched someone's eyes light up in comprehension, as they realized why a concrete notion of what Resonance is has been so hard to come by, that the nature of the project is that it is becoming more concrete through the contributions of the community.  Up to now, there's been a relatively small team, creating and testing a framework that will allow for the right balance of creative freedom and coherent storytelling. The framework into which we'll soon be inviting the wider community to come and create with us.

But there was more than that to talk about, in a room that buzzed louder by the hour with the energy of people from disparate disciplines, with a myriad of skills and resources to bring to the table, if they choose to help. Some arrived confident in what they had to offer and needed only the right place for it, like the virtuoso of simulated documents whose artistry I hope we'll be able to make use of for online clues and filming props.  Others didn't realize their own potential, a little stuck in workaday notions of "what I can do" or "what's useful." ("You have no idea who you are." K might mean something else by it -- or does she? Give the trailer another look and you tell me -- but the line keeps running through my head in multiple contexts, both within the story and with the real people I meet.)

It's this latter category who particularly interest me, and who I'm convinced will ultimately form the backbone of the Resonance community.  I talked a bit about it a few days later with the project's creator, Tom Hill, over Starbucks before we each rushed off to our next appointment, about how easy it is for talented people to get lost in the shuffle in the conventional entertainment-industry way of doing things, and how this project represents another way.

I mentioned a while back that my particularly eccentric and eclectic background has turned out to be more tailor-made for what I'm doing than anyone knew when I sent that first email -- and I don't just mean the stuff I'm qualified to do for a living. Gaming and fandom and a DIY mindset are no less important ingredients in my perspective than acting and writing.

Our story centers on a force that has inspired human accomplishment for millennia. Accomplishment comes from the recognition and development of potential. Which is also a darn good way to go about telling a big collaborative story. Pretty cool, huh?

There have been a lot of people in my life who helped me (not all of whom are still with us), whom I was in no position to repay directly. But that's not how it works, is it? The people who give what we need aren't usually the ones who need anything we have. But someone else does.

Helping to build the Resonance community gives me the chance to put others in reach of opportunity. That's as exciting to me as the storytelling work itself. I hope they take that opportunity and run with it, as far as they can, to a place where they can offer opportunity to the next bundle of potential. It doesn't get any better than that in my book.

It was quite a long day and evening coming straight off an overnight flight. By the end of the party I was cracking that I hadn't been in a bed in long enough that I couldn't do the math, which wasn't entirely true, but across six time zones I certainly didn't want to do the math!  With the buzz in the air, though, and all the warm cheerful bodies right in front of me who'd previously only been names online or faces on Skype, I hardly even felt tired until close to midnight.

Hate to disappoint the railroad folks,
but I don't think he'll fit in there.
The rest of my week in Britain was a bit of a whirlwind, but not as intense as that! And of course the rest was vacation, all visiting with friends and exploring museums and sights. Though there was still room for a chuckle at spotting our hero's enigmatic moniker on an electrical junction box. More proof that Resonance is everywhere! ;-D

Do you believe?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hey nonny nonny

In which our Diva is safely home and reacclimated to Central Standard Time

A few things I need to accomplish before writing up a proper blog post (or three) about my UK trip.

In this meantime, there's this.

Yes, I cried. I'm a sap. Deal. :-)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rockford rockin' and London calling

In which our Diva is getting out of the house in a major way

Whoops! Been neglecting the blog again. As I'm sure you can guess, it's because I've been all kinds of busy, mostly with Resonance, Scarlet X, and Elgin OPERA. I'm proud of my work on the opera website (and had fun writing the trivia quiz you'll find in your program if you go to the February 12 gala), and we're getting ever closer to when I'll be able to start pointing you to the results of all our work on those first two.

In the meantime, I'm told there are only a few spots left at the VIP after-party for the Raymond Did It premiere in Rockford next Friday, February 11. They might even be sold out by now, but if so, you can still get your ticket to the premiere at the Aegis Studios online store.

I had a great time on set last summer, and am looking forward to getting back together with the cast and crew and seeing the finished movie in all its big-screen glory. It's unapologetic in its unrated old-school slasher-flick-ness, so if that's not your bag, I totally understand. But if it is, and you're in the area, it would be fantastic to see you there too!

After that, things get even more exciting, as I'll be packing to jet off to London the following week! I'll be meeting up with lots of Resonance folks I've thus far only communicated with by email, social media, and/or Skype. Which has been good enough to facilitate collaboration on loads of very cool storytelling (which really will be going live in the near future -- believe me, I can't wait either!), but there's no real substitute for face-to-face human contact. I'll be in the UK for a whole week, which will (I hope, at least!) be just barely enough time to visit with several friends I haven't seen in years, and a couple I've yet to meet in person at all. Our small, small world seems dauntingly big sometimes, so there's nothing like the chance to shrink it down again for a little while.

To keep abreast of Resonance developments, be sure to sign up for the email newsletter on the official website, follow it on Twitter, or "Like" the Facebook page. The Chicago "cell" (where we're developing US-based storylines) also has its own Facebook page and Twitter feedSomething is happening... Will you help?

In the midst of all this, I've finally gotten around to reading The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson's bestselling history of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The book is billed as a sort of parallel-track account of visionary architect Daniel Burnham and serial killer H.H. Holmes, and it does focus primarily on these two men, but along the way there's a complex mosaic of other figures and events linking the Fair to all manner of things going on in the world at the time, some of which resonate rather startlingly with current events. It's a cracking read, and I wish I'd gotten to it years ago when everyone was still talking about it!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Romancing the stars

In which our Diva's DVD collection is growing again

Earlier this week I finally saw Agora, an extraordinary film that I didn't have the opportunity to catch during its brief visit to US cinema screens. I'd wanted to ever since I read about it at Women & Hollywood, both because I will happily watch Rachel Weisz do pretty much anything and because Alejandro Amenabar previously directed The Others, which is for my money the best haunted-house film ever made.

Agora, of course, is a completely different kind of movie, but no less beautiful, meticulous, or thought-provoking. It's one of those movies that make me thankful I don't have the mental wiring that makes people get huffy about storytellers taking dramatic license with history, because it's highly unlikely (though, as their astronomy consultant points out in the behind-the-scenes material on the DVD, not wholly implausible) that Hypatia of Alexandria actually hit on all the principles featured in the film. (I'm not even touching the anachronistic charge of "witchcraft," which made even me wince a bit, even while putting me in mind of my beloved Dangerous Beauty.) But oh, how magical to watch her grapple with those ideas, beginning with the soul-shattering leap of faith represented by the heliocentric model of the heavens -- coming to grips point-blank with the realization that we are not at the center of the cosmos -- and leading inexorably to letting go of the "purity" of the circle and placing Earth's orbit on an ellipse. Even more fascinating, she reaches the solution we know is correct (and know must be coming; if there's a conic section on the mantelpiece in Act 3, you know it'll be fired in Act 5! *g*) through the prism of the knowledge of her time, and therefore deduces a rather different model for "why" than that which Johannes Kepler bequeathed to us 1200 years later.

If the preceding paragraph has made your eyes glaze over, don't let it stop you from watching the movie, because it's not really about the science. It's about Hypatia's passion for the science. Which, if you look at the posters and most of what was written about it when it came out, is fairly obvious.

Then a funny thing happened, and it seems to have happened in the U.S. distribution phase. First, there's the redesigned-for-American-market DVD cover. Then the synopsis on IMDb, and the one on the DVD envelope from I got from Netflix, tells us that it's about a slave named Davus who, among other things, falls in love with his mistress. The Netflix synopsis doesn't even name her.

Now, I'm the first to agree that Davus' journey in the film is as rich and complex as Hypatia's, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out in the future for more from Max Minghella, whose performance absolutely makes it a compelling journey to follow. I'd certainly go as far as to call him a second lead. But Davus is not the center of the film. He's one of several men in Hypatia's orbit, none of whom is her lover (albeit not for lack of trying), which is even more baffling to the Hollywood mindset. She is explicitly described by several of the creative team in the documentary material as the sun at the center of the film's cosmos, and I can't imagine watching the film through and not coming away with that impression.

The other thing I find a bit depressing (albeit unsurprising) is the amount of commentary I've seen that interprets the film as anti-Christian. The comment thread on on the trailer on YouTube has voices both agreeing with and offended by the perceived condemnation. But there is no such condemnation. There is a great deal said about how bringing religion into the political mix makes it that much easier for human beings to rationalize their own abuse of power.

Have there always been so many people who don't know the difference between the two? Certainly in the fifth-century Alexandria of this film, that would appear to be the case. And that's the larger tragedy, above and beyond the death of one brilliant and committed woman.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

We mind because it matters

In which our Diva is thoroughly disgusted, but also hopeful

Earlier this week, I tweeted: Andrew Wakefield made a fortune by lying, without regard for harm to others. Last I checked, the word for that was "sociopath." That's pretty much all I have to say on the topic. It will be years before we'll be able to calculate the damage done by the falsified study linking vaccines to autism, if indeed it ever stops posing health risks and lining the pockets of a whole legion of quacks preying on desperate parents.

Also in the last few days, there's a lesser-known (and let's pray he stays that way) sociopath by the name of Kenneth Tong tweeting an endless stream of hardcore pro-ana propaganda and touting an alleged "size zero pill" that will make everything all better. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Apparently he was on Big Brother for about seventeen seconds before getting booted for threatening a housemate. This post on the blog "A Very Public Sociologist" sums up quite well which rock this individual crawled out from under, what makes him tick, and why paying any attention to him plays into his greedy little hands.

That last is why I hesitate to mention him at all, but I've come to the conclusion that it's important for a variety of reasons. I still refuse to link directly to anything of his, and have in fact set him to "blocked" on both Twitter and Facebook. Not that he would notice or care, but my hope is that a wave of users doing so will be noticed by the services in question, which are unfortunately unlikely to ban him regardless of at least one e-petition calling for it. (Not linking to that either, not because I don't agree with the sentiment, but because they don't work. Spend your energy elsewhere.) Unfortunately, I have no doubt that they regard him as nothing more than "controversial," and will continue to allow him a forum for what is nothing more nor less than hate speech. (If you don't understand why that phrase applies, spend an hour or two at Kate Harding's "Shapely Prose" archive. I used to add "and try not to say anything too ignorant while you're there," but then I stopped because it was fun to watch her take such comments apart. Unfortunately, she appears to have gotten burnt out on that -- and I don't blame her a bit -- but the archive remains a valuable resource.)

When references to him first popped up in my Twitter timeline a few days ago, my first thought was that it was some misfired attempt at "ironic" hipster misogyny, following the current trend in (so-called) humor of spouting things so outrageously, offensively bigoted that surely no one could take them seriously, so we must know the speaker is joking! That's apparently how you're supposed to tell that it's funny, and if you don't laugh, well, you must be the humor-deficient one. (Hint: No.)

I've since come to the conclusion that, while he might end up claiming retroactively to be up to something like that (see also: "It was a social experiment!"), there's nothing remotely so clever going on. Just some guy who may or may not understand, but certainly doesn't care, that he's doing very real harm just to get attention. And make no mistake, there is harm. Every single thing he's saying amplifies the tape already playing in the background for any woman who lives in our society, and which tyrannizes the lives of those living with eating disorders.

It may be a mixed blessing (due to the aforementioned giving him attention), but it's still cheering to see the virtually unanimous disgust in response. From high-profile figures like Rihanna and Simon Cowell, from less famous but still influential people like Being Human star Sinead Keenan and Doctor Who composer Murray Gold, and from pithy private citizens like this and this and many more. Like British educator Philip Edmundson, who's gone beyond the single-tweet statement to begin building a counter-campaign of sorts, including a link to this eloquent and heartbreaking blog post about just what it is Tong's comments are enabling.

Twitter is full of call-to-arms hashtags (enumerated and retweeted by the Kardashian sisters): #stunningnotstarving, #nosizezero, #curvesaresexy, #curvesarebeautiful. While I support the sincerity of those using all of them, I'm personally only using #stunningnotstarving, as I find the others problematic for a couple of reasons: #nosizezero denies the existence of the minority (however few) who are very small but healthy, and the last two are more positive but still imply a bit of exclusion. A woman of any size and shape can be stunning and not starving, so that's one I can take to heart.

What's sad and infuriating is that it took absolutely no effort for Kenneth Tong to seize his pathetic little bastion of power, because the structures are already in place. Every word he's tweeting is part of the basic formula women get from every direction every day they live in our culture:

What you weigh is how you look.
How you look is whether you're wanted.
Whether you're wanted is what you're worth.

So we can ignore Tong and his blatant "if you're not thin you fail at life" (by a definition of success at life that seems to consist entirely of whether you sleep with celebrities) all we want, but the message will still be there, and in more insidious forms. I'm not immune. Neither are women of my acquaintance who, even while expressing their disgust with Tong's comments, had the courage to admit he affected their food choices that day.

Which brings me to the good news: Long before this creature crawled out from under his rock, the opposition was in place. And it's gaining momentum. In the BodyHeart Campaign, which also came to my attention via Twitter, thanks to Dollhouse star Miracle Laurie. In the Viola Project, bringing out the power of young women through the power of Shakespeare's words. In the increasing public awareness of the extent to which fashion images are retouched and manipulated, which is just beginning to build into a backlash. In the documentary Superskinny Me, in which two British journalists discover firsthand the destructive consequences of the "race to size double zero" even under close medical supervision. And now in the stream of tweets calling Kenneth Tong out on his douchebaggerie, and the fact that they vastly outnumber the heartbreaking ones -- every single one accompanied by an avatar depicting a perfectly attractive young woman -- asking him where to get his magical miracle pill. (My money's on some of those being sockpuppet accounts designed to feed into the publicity machine, which is that much more disgusting, but might also mean that many fewer victims falling for his flimflam.) Edit: Thanks to long-time friend Mandy, who brought my attention to this amazing community of Harry Potter fans, who focus on a different real-life "horcrux" (the word for a type of curse in the HP universe) each month, and who happen to be discussing body image this month. Serendipity!

This issue is nothing new. It's not the first time I've blogged about it, and it won't be the last. It'll be back the next time the camel's back breaks, and I trust you'll bear with me.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a nice healthy dinner to cook. All that misogynist claptrap is making me hungry.

Song for Today: I know I've named Saving Jane's "One Girl Revolution" before, but I can't think of anything more appropriate or inspiring. Raise your hand!

P.S.: If I ever say to you, individually, that you're beautiful, you're gorgeous, you're anything wonderful I happen to feel like calling you? I'm not blowing smoke. I'm not just trying to make you feel better, or making empty noises to puff up your self-esteem. I'm saying it because I believe it is true, pure and simple. Contradict me if you absolutely must, but know that your energy would be better spent trying to teach a pig to sing. :-)