By David Brensilver
Before Joshua Foer wrote the best-selling book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (Penguin Books, 2011), he and Dylan Thuras launched an incredibly useful project called Atlas Obscura, a Web-based resource that directs the intellectually curious to fascinating destinations one won’t find by consulting the typical tourism-related websites or guide books.
The user-generated content at atlasobscura.com is a gold mine for folks who are planning trips to cities in this country or beyond U.S. borders and want to experience something they won’t likely find on a postcard.
A search for New Haven on the Atlas Obscura website yields such stimulating destinations as the Cushing Brain Collection, located at the Cushing Center at Yale University’s Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.
On “Obscura Day 2011,” Foer led a group of equally curious individuals on a tour of the collection. Through Atlas Obscura, he and others who seek out such compelling resources are continually introducing one another to similarly wondrous sites.
The next time I’m in Chicago, for instance, I’ll definitely pay a visit to Myopic Books. If I find myself in Vancouver, I’ll make a beeline for the Elizabethan hedge maze at VanDusen’s Botanical Garden. And if I get to Bolivia, I’ll take a very careful ride along North Yungas Road, which, for the danger it poses to travelers, has earned the nickname “Death Road.”
Atlas Obscura reminds us that fascination is nearby, wherever we are, and that the best resources for the intellectually curious are those curated by like-minded explorers.
David Brensilver is the editor of The Arts Paper. This is his opinion.
Nearly a year ago, in July 2012, I described Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America as “a masterly word-picture that tells an incredible story that just happens to be true.”
Today, I can enthusiastically say the same of Larson’s Thunderstruck, which tells two fascinating stories that unfolded and became inextricably linked in the early part of the 20th century: Guglielmo Marconi’s unrelenting determination to corner the global wireless-telegraphy market, and Hawley Harvey Crippen’s nearly successful attempt to conceal a murder as brutal as any that Londoners had seen since those committed two decades earlier by Jack the Ripper.
What I admire about Larson is the incredible amount of detail he provides about these characters and their circumstances, which in turn reveals the amount of research he did, mostly by examining archival collections and reading previously published historical accounts. What I appreciate even more is how he organizes and presents all that information, which in many respects is the craft of storytelling.
Larson is a magnificent narrator who offers his readers a wealth of historical context and, occasionally, a bit of subtle, wry humor — just enough to remind us that while we’re learning a great deal from his writing, we’re reading it, presumably, for pleasure.
To me, Larson’s books (at least the two that I’ve read to date) are as entertaining as they are fascinating. I’ve found myself recommending them often and will continue to do so (as I am here).
I encourage you to learn more about Erik Larson and his work at eriklarsonbooks.com.
– David Brensilver
By Amanda May
After such a long winter, we should all be outside as much as possible this summer, agreed? The International Festival of Arts & Ideas is a perfect way to up your al fresco entertainment this June, and if you are in the mood for variety, the Weekend Showcase is a great option.
Each of the 20-plus performers will take the stage for 30 minutes or less. The showcase takes place on the lower green, on the Main Stage as well as the “Family Stage,” which is so named because of the family focused entertainment it offers during the week.
The Weekend Showcase will be happening on Saturdays and Sundays during the festival, starting at noon on Saturdays and around 2 p.m. on Sundays, continuing through the afternoon until the headlining artists take over (6-6:30 p.m.). The acts include music, dance, and even theatrical performances and will alternate between the two stages.
Melissa Huber, the festival’s Weekend Showcase producer, spoke with The Arts Paper about the history of the showcase and the selection process, and talked about which acts audiences can look forward to this year.
AM: How many years has the showcase happened?
MH: This particular incarnation has been around since 2009. It’s one of several ways that we have to provide opportunities for artists in Connecticut and the Northeast region. One of the things we really like about it is that we’ve been able to really spotlight each artist that appears on the festival’s stage. This grew out of a program we did in 2006, “Village of Villages,” which had many stages going on all afternoon long. It was very exciting, but sounds conflicts came up (at one point a rock band and gospel choir were playing at the same time). The Weekend Showcase allows us to spotlight each artist, providing some focus for their work.
AM: How many artists are involved each year?
MH: On average, we are able to provide 22-26 slots each year for this particular series. In the past three years, we have had around 68 applications (per year), so it’s getting nicely competitive. We have some nice choices, and it’s upping the ante a little bit in terms of what they’re sending us (video of applicants performing, not just audio).
AM: Are all of the acts local?
MH: It’s a really good opportunity for local performers, but we’ve also had performers out of Boston, New York, and New Hampshire. It just depends if they’re aware of it and apply.
AM: How do you let people know about the opportunity?
MH: The call for artists is on our website all year, and we do make a push through our own social media channels, and though press releases in Greater New Haven and Connecticut-based papers. We really want to make sure the folks in our backyard know about this opportunity.
AM: What do you look for in a performer?
MH: There are a few different criteria; we’re looking to offer audiences a broad swath of artists. We want to make sure we have dance, several musical genres (world music, folk, traditional, etc.). The showcase is reflective of our ethos of programming as a whole. All of the festival offers a broad artistic palette from which to choose. World diverse, but also a diversity of ages. We look both at younger artists just starting out as well as artists who we might know from another band, and they recently put together a new formation of artists. There is a certain amount of logistics with picking artists. For example, if your dance work is heavily video supported, it’s unfortunately not going to work. (This is a daytime stage). As a festival we continually struggle with it, but so far it works well as an outdoor stage.
AM: Do any acts repeat from year to year?
MH: We do have artists that repeat, for example, the New Haven Ballet has performed a couple of times and Rebecca Moore Dance has been (here) a couple of times. We have had people repeat, but … another piece of the game is to make sure it’s not the same lineup each year. We also use it as a viewing platform for ourselves, for our Noon to Night program. We like to introduce ourselves to new artists or new types of music (through the showcase) then use some of them in the next year’s “Noon to Night” program. (Weekend showcase artists do not collect a fee, while we have a modest budget for “Noon to Night performers.”)
AM: Who is the audience for the showcase?
MH: People should be looking for an afternoon of a wide variety of different work. … We encourage an all-ages outdoor summer fun show. We also encourage them to play their own original music.
THREE TO SEE
- A three-person (Joe Gallagher Jr., singer/songwriter/guitar; Tony DiGiovanni vocalist/guitar; Chris Kilbourn, bass; Dan Michaud-drums) alt-rock group, blended with a fusion of other genres. In general they have a folk influence. On their ReverbNation profile they are listed as sounding like Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, Staind, and Jason Mraz.
Find out more at JoeGallagherJr.com and Reverbnation.com/loquemusic1.
- An indie-alternative rock band featuring Connecticut natives James MacPherson, James Cryan, and Nick Sokol. They have more of a hard rock influence and are one of the younger groups.
Find out more at Bonsaitreesband.com.
Christa Renee Band
- This female-fronted band is based out of New Hampshire and has a Caribbean-influenced sound. They are: Christa Renee, vocals/guitar; Jeff Costello, drums; Pete Gustafson, bass; Josiah Erikson, keyboards; and Michael Ryan, percussion. On their ReverbNation site, they list their sound as similar to Blondie, The Police, Michael Franti and Spearhead, The Clash, and Bob Marley.
Find out more at Reverbnation.com/christareneeband.
The full Weekend Showcase schedule can be found at artidea.org.
Challenges of immigration explored
By David Brensilver
Aaron Jafferis’ one-man show Stuck Elevator has been reimagined since it enjoyed at reading at the 2010 International Festival of Arts & Ideas. At the time, the work was being developed in workshops at the Yale Institute for Music Theatre, after which Jafferis, a New Haven native brought it to the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab (2011), among other theater-development programs.
The work, which features a score by Byron Au Yong, is described on the International Festival of Arts & Ideas website as “a comic-rap-scrap metal musical prompted by the real life experience of a Chinese restaurant delivery man trapped in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours.”
The issues surrounding immigration and the challenges faced in this country by undocumented immigrants are as important and contentious as they were when Jafferis and Au Yong wrote Stuck Elevator. What has changed since 2010, is the work’s presentation – in particular, the expansion of the show’s cast.
After the piece’s reading here in 2010, Jafferis was convinced that four additional characters being portrayed on stage would propel the drama.
During a telephone conversation in late April, Jafferis said the expanded cast allows the work to explore more thoroughly the life Guang, the work’s main character, had in his native China before immigrating to the United States. That Guang’s wife and son are now portrayed on stage makes more obvious all that he left behind to come to the United States. In turn, the decisions with which so many immigrants struggle – not the least of which is whether to remove oneself physically from family in order to provide a better life for them – are more directly revealed.
While he had concerns about detracting from the loneliness and isolation depicted by Guang, Jafferis said the addition of characters has served to “heighten the inner conflicts he’s grappling with.”
The larger story, of course, is that of so many undocumented immigrants – and “the crucial role they play in New Haven and (across) the country,” Jafferis said, pointing out the influence of New Haven’s “immigrant-rights community.”
Tom Morris, who directed the National Theatre and the Handspring Puppet Company in the acclaimed stage production of War Horse, comes to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to direct a unique production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring the Handspring Puppet Company and actors from the Bristol Old Vic, where he currently serves as artistic director. What follows is an e-mail interview The Arts Paper Editor David Brensilver conducted with Morris about his turn at Shakespeare’s classic play.
DB: You’ve described your collaborations with the Handspring Puppet Company as theatrical experimentation. Would you talk about the audience’s role in this exploration of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
TM: For me, the audience is at the heart of any theatrical experiment. A theatrical experiment is not something devised in the private of a rehearsal room and then inflicted on whichever audience turns up: It’s always an invitation to an audience to participate. In this case, our tools are puppets, and those tools work by triggering the imagination and emotion of the audiences who watch them. If the audience don’t believe the puppet is alive, then the puppet is not alive. In many ways it’s pure theater. This show is experimental because it makes that invitation in many different ways, some of which are highly unconventional. But none of those experiments have any meaning or validity until they take shape in the imaginations of those who see the show.
DB: If the magical qualities of this play invite this sort of storytelling investigation, what pitfalls in terms of connecting with audiences come with that invitation? Have you had concerns about audiences being distracted from the story given the transparent nature of this production, or do you believe that bolsters audience engagement?
TM: Yes, we take risks in this show, and audiences will probably find some moments where you need to work a little to stay with the story. And the variety of experiment in the show means that different audience members might find that at different points. But our overwhelming experience in Bristol is that the journey pays off.
DB: How did you approach the presentation of humor in this staging without diminishing the production’s sincerity? Did the puppets add to that challenge?
TM: The best jokes are funny because they are believable, which means you have to find the truth for the character even in the most absurd situations. That is our aim, and if we succeed, the joke gets funnier.
DB: Talk, if you would, about the perhaps unfamiliar responsibilities the actors have had in presenting the work in this way. It seems that the characters are, in a sense, divided between their human portrayers and the puppets. How do the actors divide those responsibilities?
TM: The actors always know where the focus of the character is. In other words they are either playing through the puppet or through their own bodies.
DB: How have you taken advantage of the element of transparency that this presentation offers? Does the ethereal quality of the work itself play into that?
TM: Yes – I think by “transparency” you mean what some call “poor theatre” or what others call “theatre of the imagination,” in other words theatre which reveals its own mechanisms, making manifest its imaginative contract with the audience. That sounds complicated but in fact it’s simple. It’s like the prologue to Henry V. “Think, when we speak of horses, that you see them printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth.” And in a play which is partly about seeing things that aren’t there, and feeling things that can’t be explained, this feels like a rich language.
DB: This production can be viewed as an exploration of the very essential elements of theater and storytelling, can it not?
TM: Thank you. I think it can. But hopefully in a fun way. We don’t want it to feel like a class!
DB: As much as War Horse embraced realism, this production celebrates the fantasy of Shakespeare’s play. Was that a driving force behind choosing this work?
TM: Exactly as you’ve already implied. In many ways the subject of the play is the changeability of the hearts, minds, and even bodies of its characters. We have tried to embrace that in a way that is both truthful and playful.
DB: What was discussed early on in terms of the puppets’ design and their roles in telling the story, when you and the Handspring Puppet Company’s Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones embarked on this project?
TM: We talked a lot about the very questions you have raised, of course, and then I simply asked Adrian to dream his own dreams in response to the play, which has created the visual language of the play. In some ways, our version of Hippolyta in the play is a bit like Adrian: a carver of images who dreams those images into life. That’s what Basil and Adrian have done for the last 30 years.
Visit artidea.org for detailed information about performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Beyond the main stage: L’Homme Cirque
By Amanda May
International Festival of Arts & Ideas audiences this year will have an opportunity to experience David Dimitri’s unique, one-man circus act, L’Homme Cirque. After training at the State Academy for Circus Arts in Budapest and taking intensive dance studies at New York’s Julliard School, Dimitri spent years touring the world with circus companies until he decided to put on the whole circus himself. He now is in charge of everything from marketing and performing to the construction and rigging of his tent and high-wire, as well as live music during the show. Talk about a real renaissance man! Attend one of his events for some light-hearted fun. In late April Dimitri answered a few of The Arts Paper’s questions (via e-mail from Switzerland). What follows is that correspondence.
AM: When did you decide to go on your own and start L’Homme Cirque?
DD: It was back in the ’90s, when I was touring with the Big Apple Circus. I had already been touring for many years, and doing unreasonable acrobatic stunts, when I suddenly realized that I should go on and try something new, something on my own. But, as soon as I took that new path, I realized that I was, in fact, caught up in doing even more dangerous and insane daring things.
AM: What is the hardest part of putting on a one-man show?
DD: You carry the entire responsibility of the performance as well as the entire project. All depends on you. The slightest mistake could cost you a logistical or financial disaster, let alone any kind of injury, which would force you to cancel the performances.
AM: What is a moment that is an audience favorite?
DD: That is difficult for me to say about my own work, but the human canon ball act always goes over well.
AM: Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
DD: I see the show as a one entire performance, as one moment. As there are several refined and poetic moments in the show, I am always reminded that often the purest and simplest moments tend to be the strongest and most effective parts in a show and not necessarily the big “flash and crash” stunts. I like that.
AM: What age level is your show designed for?
DD: To be on the safe side, I would say from 5 to 100 years old. Originally I created L’Homme Cirque for a regular evening crowd, but have later realized that many adults then go home and bring their entire families to see the show for a second time.
AM: How much time have you spent on a high-wire?
DD: I have spent more than a year and a half of my life on the high wire, during which time I must have made about 10,000 somersaults while walking a total distance of about 4,000 miles.
AM: Will all of the performances happen — do they cancel for rain?
DD: I will perform rain or shine unless there is a thunderstorm with high winds. That’s no good for a wire walker.
AM: Who do you look up to professionally or for inspiration?
DD: It’s an inside look of a wire-dancer’s work. It will consist of physical exercises, as well as talking about “balance” in the broader term. A high-wire walker’s view on life balance; balance as a way of life, focusing on and experimenting with physical balance, keeping yourself in balance, keeping objects in balance. (It is not for children expecting a basic circus class.)
AM: Is there an age requirement to enter the class?
DD: Fourteen is the age requirement.
Dimitri’s master class will take place on Tuesday, June 18, at 10 a.m., at Broadway Lofts, 294 Elm St., New Haven. And of course, attend one of Dimitri’s 20 performances, a schedule of which can be found at artidea.org.