13 July 2018

in & of itself

There is much I want to say about In & Of Itself, a performance by the magician Derek DelGaudio, that I can't. Partly it's that anything I might say about the show, even really minor details, seem like they would be spoilers, and that feels wrong - it feels wrong even though very few people ever read these words, which are after all not for anybody but myself, and even though even fewer of you might go see this show before it closes in a month or so. I am not alone in that regard; Joe Posnanski, whose blog post here inspired me to go see it, says really nothing about what takes place inside the theater, and the Steven Colbert interview with DelGaudio is equally unwilling to part with any details. (This American Life spilled some of the beans, and I will not link to that.)

But I also simply can't tell you anything meaningful about the show, because - you had to be there. I mean, I could tell you this trick or that, whatever, the color of his suit or the set or the cards on the wall (there's a detail, but that's well disclosed various places, and it's pretty much the first thing that happens in the show; happens before the show starts, actually). You might react, "huh, that sounds cool" but I don't think I would be able to get you to understand: No, it was beautiful.

And I can't tell you about the show because I am still not sure what I saw.

I guess it was magic. I guess, because thinking about every "trick" that occurred - there wasn't any mystery to it, in a sense. There's an extended bit with cards, and the wonder of it is that DelGaudio was doing everything in plain sight, in front of your eyes, people six feet away from him and a camera zoomed in, you can see his hands moving in close up and he does things that simply seem impossible. And that is a lot of the show, indeed: there are things in front of your eyes that you are not seeing. There is a light offstage right illuminating him - here is something else I will tell you about the show - and he talks about that light, and the person causing it to turn on, and why she does that when she does that; he calls attention to the fact that we are in a theater and this is artifice; there is no illusion about the artifice, except he also says "I can only say these things because you won't believe me," like no matter how hard we try to pierce the artifice we insist on believing that it is artifice.  Not all these thoughts are my own, really.  But most of what he does, even - especially - the big number at the end, is not so much about what he did or how he did it as how is it possible that he could do that.

I guess that is magic. At some level though, it is craft, not art, although maybe craft taken to that level becomes art. It is an unbelievable level of craft which is indistinguishable from magic.

But this performance, as a whole, is unquestionably art, by any definition but particularly by Hammett's definition which is: work or performance wherein the audience participates in the construction of meaning.

But I cannot tell you what the meaning of In & Of Itself is because I do not know what it meant. I am still working that out; writing this is part of working that out. People will tell you it is an exploration into identity, and it is partly that. The show itself seems happy enough to promote itself as that, but then again in the business you sell what you can sell, and that's probably something the artier folks who wouldn't be caught dead at a Magic Show - me for example - can hang onto. Maybe that's what DelGaudio thinks it's about. But then again, "wherein the audience participates in the construction of meaning," so he doesn't totally get to say.

I think - this is a postulate; I may reject it later - In & Of Itself is about seeing. That's obvious, you know, like when my professor Terry Hummer described writing in his notes about a novel, "Names matter." Of course a show that uses sleight of hand is about seeing, and more importantly what you don't see. So I should fix that: In & Of Itself is about not seeing. It's about the elephant in the room.  Literally, there is an elephant in the room. Not literally, of course, it's metaphorical, but there is literally a metaphorical elephant in the room (there is something else I have told you about the show), although even for that someone on Twitter described his son saying "I see the elephant, Dad," and then seeing it himself, so I think it is possible that there was a literal elephant in the room that I missed, like that video where you are watching people passing a ball and miss the man in a gorilla suit strolling through.

I have no idea what I may not have seen that was right in front of my eyes. And maybe that's why I find the show so powerful, now.  (I am not sure I found it exactly powerful yesterday.  I found it wonderful, delightful, you know, those sorts of things - but today I am finding it powerful.)  I go through life wondering, often, How do they see that?  How do I not see that?  And I feel alone in that; I feel like everybody else has the secret power, except it's not secret, everybody has it, that tells them how to react, that enables them to see other people clearly in ways that are a complete mystery to me.  It is right in front of my face, six feet away, and everything is moving a little too quickly, with a little too much distraction, for me to notice it.  It is possible however that nobody has this power, that not seeing is just the human condition, and we are all trying to go through life looking like we see everything.  Like we have figured out the tricks when we are just guessing, and probably guessing wrong.  We cannot even see ourselves.

I'm going to leave it there.  Here is a picture of a brick.  It is just a brick, painted gold, sitting at the corner of Sixth Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) and Houston Street.

08 May 2018


I wrote a while back that nearly everything I've ever written is a kind of obituary. This is a real one. Our friend Derek died yesterday. You can read Reg's remembrance here or here.

Derek was both one of the least sentimental people I have ever known, and one of the greatest lovers of the arts I have ever known. This seems an unlikely combination. He was an economist and brought an economist's skepticism and rationality to almost any subject. You would suggest something he thought fanciful (a word of his) or dubious and he'd look over his glasses and respond, "Weeeeeellllll ..." and leave you to defend yourself, or withdraw it.

He was a senior economist at JP Morgan, then JP Morgan Chase & Co, and bought his clothes at the Salvation Army and was fond of getting breakfast at what he would call "supercheap" diners, because why would you spend more? And he gave enough money to the Metropolitan Opera every year that they would give him tickets to dress rehearsals and working rehearsals and list his name in the program, which they don't do for any old donor. For a wonderful time there, when I wasn't working regular hours, I could meet him on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon - he was working regular hours but the cadence of his job meant that he could skip out for the afternoon early in the week on a pretty regular basis. We'd get to sit in the fancy boxes, and maybe we'd end up seeing the first act twice, or skip the second act, or whatever. But we'd be there in that nearly empty, silent hall - the contrast would make you realize how noisy people are even when they're being silent - and see some of the most transcendent moments you'll ever encounter in a performance.

I had thought I hated opera until Derek started us on it, first Reg and then when Reg started working regular hours, me as a poor substitute. He delighted in having converted us both.

And he was, this unsentimental person, full of delight. He was so fond of Reg, who brought out a side of him he rarely wanted to admit existed. There he was, this major donor to the Metropolitan Opera, coming to Off the Hook performances, and I'd be vaguely embarrassed at the relative quality of our work, but every now and then he'd comment afterward about how good a particular show was, and we'd know we'd nailed it.

There wouldn't be any Falconworks without him. Not much of one, anyway. He bankrolled our first real production, "Out of the Bag," during which we all learned what a money pit theater can be. But he didn't bat an eye - well, maybe he did, but he kept funding that and other shows, especially "Fixing the Album" and the big production of "Salome" that we did at the Brooklyn Lyceum that kickstarted us into being a real company. Apart from being fond of Reg, Derek saw his talent, and kept supporting it, through lean years when we were suddenly grappling with the relentless reality of payroll, and through - well, there haven't been any fat years, but if that ever deterred Derek he never let it show. The cliche that comes to mind is that he never asked questions, but that's not true at all; he always asked questions, always looked at our financials and budgets and said, "really?" But he never wavered in his support.

Apart from Falconworks - much more than Falconworks - he kept Freedom Theater afloat through an even larger number of  lean years. And in that respect it might seem wrong to call Derek unsentimental, because any sensible person would have abandoned ship years ago, and an economist knows well the notion of sunk costs. But I think his determination to make Freedom succeed wasn't some form of nostalgia about the past or his personal connections; he was determined because he thought the work was valuable and worth doing.

(The Freedom experience did, however, give him a strong antipathy toward mixing art and real estate; whenever anyone suggested that Falconworks might acquire a space of its own he would tilt his head back suddenly, roll his eyes, and say "No, no, no ....")

He liked basketball, which always seemed unlikely. He would take New Jersey Transit and then Septa all the way to Philly, a habit that used to drive me nuts but which I've since learned (in fairness, he was going to Philly a lot more than I did). He would invariably arrive at the train station or the opera with thirty seconds to spare; how he managed to do so on public transit I never understood. He had more real estate entanglements than I could keep track of, or he, nearly. He remained friends with his exes, which led to some of the real estate entanglements. He wore bowties, which he enjoyed as a kind of trademark. I'm not sure he owned an overcoat.  He took me to see Eugene Onegin, which remains one of the most moving arts experiences of my life. He used to wrap up his toast after breakfast at a supercheap diner and bring it home with him, which I've also since learned. He used to joke about how the little technology project I'd signed onto at Citibank seemed to be a guarantee of permanent employment, about which he has not yet been proven wrong.

Once, maybe a couple weeks after September 11, he said, "If you're a gay man who has lived in New York City for the past 20 years, you've seen so much death that this doesn't seem exceptional" - words to that effect, I don't remember the exact quote. That may seem cold, I suppose, but it wasn't; it was as somber and as honestly heartbroken as anything else anyone said in those sad days.

He was embarrassed by anybody making a fuss about him. When Falconworks gave him an award at our benefit a few years ago, he sort of said, "Yes, well, all right." When he accepted it he climbed to the stage and gave, ex tempore, a lovely explanation of why it was worth supporting an organization like Falconworks, and heartfelt.

He is the maybe most loyal friend I have ever had. I am far more broken up about this than I had expected to be. How I will miss him.

17 March 2017

happy happy

Number 4(?) in an occasional series of reviews of snacks semi-randomly selected from the kiosk downstairs:
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These were pretty bad. Opening the package I was overcome by a smell that was difficult to place, but that I finally identified as the exact aroma of Frankenberry cereal. Whatever the white side is supposed to taste like is no match for fake strawberry. In combination with a plausibly chocalate cookie, they reminded me of chocolate fondue, in the way that Pierce Brosnan was a reminder of Sean Connery. 2/10.

04 March 2017

my old school

I was sitting on the southern side of the plane as it descended toward the airport in Columbus. The view that way is as uninteresting as you can imagine.  I wished I had been sitting on the other side of the plane, where I might have looked for the green, faux-copper roofs of Columbus Academy.

With that thought in mind, and wanting stretch the in-between of travel a little longer before arriving at home, I pointed the car through Gahanna toward Cherry Bottom Road. (Yes, yes, it's a ridiculous name; it was even more ridiculous in the context of what was then the Boys' Academy with its insistence on antique and homoerotically tinged terms like Master and Head Boy.) Gahanna was what I remembered and then nothing like what I remembered; shabby strip malls where the McDonald's and Burger King were in the same places they were thirty-five years ago, and suddenly, on Mill Street, one of those pseudo-urban "neighborhoods" that are the current fashion. Cherry Bottom itself  was more crowded with subdivisions than it used to be, but the turns were familiar, leading up to a broad right-hand curve and the low, decorative gate of my old school.

The drive up the hill was the same, minus the anxiety that accompanied me every morning for eight years. The scene at the top was not: a brand new building, carefully recreating the old Academy building when the school was on Nelson Road.  It was handsome enough and the phoniness was reasonably well disguised.

Behind the new old building were the authentically dated architecture I remembered. It's hard to believe anyone ever thought that cupola was a good idea. The upper school building had been carved open, revealing the spot where a mural Matt and I painted had once been. The quad in front of what had been the library was much smaller than it used to be, of course. Walking across that quad was extremely forbidden.
We broke nearly every rule they had, including the time Bobby mooned our French teacher when he was arriving late to work - although, actually, I'm not sure there was a rule specifically prohibiting that. But almost nobody ever crossed the quad. It reminded me of when I was visiting my Exeter classmate Michael Lindsay - the real Exeter, not the New Hampshire one - and he took me to tour his old school. There was a similar patch of grass, and even as a graduate, on a summer evening with the place deserted, he couldn't bring himself to cross it. 

(I remember on that visit I mentioned that my school had just celebrated its 75th year. He laughed. The Merchant Taylors' School was founded in 1561.)

Behind the old administration building and its cupola was another lawn. This one really was smaller than I remembered. They'd closed in the far side with a dining hall a while ago, and extended the backs of the original campus buildings ten feet or so. I looked across to where the art department used to be, above our old dining hall, and the gym. There was a new sculpture. I was walking near the spot of that sculpture when I was told I was gay for the first time. I was not yet eleven and had been at the place for maybe a month, and I had earned the description by putting my arm around the shoulder of a classmate.

I couldn't get in to see the auditorium where I'd played Claggart and Algernon and Petruchio. Near its doors, outside the lower school building that went up when I was a student, I looked to see if the
mushroom was still there. It was a piece of playground equipment that we had designed as an art project. It was made out of reinforced concrete, and had a stem you could climb up and a lobe you could hide under and another lobe you could slide down. The slide didn't work very well, because, well, concrete isn't all that slippery, but you could scale up it anyway. The real thing didn't live up to my imagination when it was finished. Some time later I saw the remarks of a graduating senior, and she referred to it as a touchstone of her early years at the school. It was nice to have that connection. In any case, it's not there anymore; in its place is an ordinary bit of playground equipment.

I hadn't known what to expect. What I found was, mostly - nothing. Memories, obviously, but not much in the way of feelings. There were people I'd like to see again. Teachers, mostly;
not many classmates. It was a place I spent a lot of time, once. It's hard to remember how much it was my entire life.  I took away a good education, in its way, Latin and Greek and Calculus and that. I took away the belief that everybody ought to have the opportunity for that kind of an education, not that I've contributed to any progress on that front. On the other hand, they let me leave without knowing who James Baldwin was, so I didn't go to hear him speak my freshman year at Kenyon. They sent me off, maybe contrary to plan or maybe not, with a strong distaste for phoniness.

03 February 2017


I'm reluctant to write this, because Hollywood needs to make and celebrate more movies about black people's lives, and I don't mean "The Help."  And it needs to make and celebrate more movies about gay people's lives, and it certainly needs to make and celebrate movies about black gay people. But I don't think "Moonlight" is that movie. 

Five minutes in - less than that - I realized: poverty porn. And let me be clear, it is reasonably effective poverty porn. Ten minutes in, I was ready to leave the theater and burn the whole world down. To be fair, I feel that way most of the time in early 2017, so I'm not sure that's a major achievement, but it's not nothing. I don't know how anyone else might have felt, of course. Maybe there were black folks watching the movie with me who were glad to see their lives on film, on the screen. Or maybe everybody in the theater with me was thinking, "Oh, look at them" like we were on some higher class version of the Jungle Cruise. I don't know what other people think. 

So I'm sitting there moved to anger at the movie and moved to anger by the movie, and some of that anger because the pain of Little was so familiar. And because the sudden, unexpected discovery of joy, of a life that seemed like it belonged only to other people, was so familiar. 

And that isn't nothing, either. "Moonlight" has a few shining moments, transcendent moments, and it would be unfair to give those short shrift. It takes work to achieve that. You have to be doing something right in the rest of the film, poverty porn or not, for those moments to land. And they really did land, the scenes on the beach, or certainly the climactic moment at the school, which reminded me of "Marty," a movie that ranks high among my favorites. They were the sort of moment you go to the movies hoping to see. 

And yet: they arise out of, and submerge back into, a sea of bad cinematic choices. Some - the decision to make Little's mom a crack whore rather than a waitress or hotel maid, or the implausible post-climactic third act, seem driven by the desire to make the story As Dramatic As Possible. Others lay somewhere between laziness and ineptitude; the script is devoid of poetic ambition, until the clumsy moments it decides it needs a few poetic ambitions that the poor actors have to gamely clank their way through. Against this lack of ambition stand ostentatiously arty direction and cinematography and especially score. Which all contribute to the sense of high-class poverty porn. 

Which, you know, would be ok. But two things. 

First, the ending, which is genuinely lovely - but which, coming as it does after ninety minutes or so of film whose main redeeming quality is that it made me want to burn down the whole world - it is an ending that, as Richard Wright wrote of his own  work, would allow bankers' daughters to cry. It's a beautiful conclusion, and it suggests that the filmmakers had none of the courage of their convictions, or more likely never had those convictions at all. Which just makes the whole thing a waste. 

Second, though: all those Oscar nominations. This is the part that I'm reluctant to write. But here goes: I once went to an exhibit of Elijah Pierce's work at the Columbus Museum. Pierce was an African-American woodcarver, self-taught, a naive artist if you will, who became known in Columbus and maybe in the wider art world. It was a fantastic exhibition. But I remember comparing the cards explaining Pierce's work to those explaining the other artworks throughout the museum. The others' were about technique, composition, the use of light and shadow, that sort of thing. Pierce's cards were about content. They explained the subject matter depicted in his works. 

It was as if, for me, Elijah Pierce wasn't a real artist. He was a woodcarver, and a storyteller, but apparently it wasn't worth considering his artistic choices, why he used the colors he did, how he arranged his subjects, how his technique developed over the decades. And I thought, either you think he's a real artist, and you hold him to the same standard, and describe him in the same way as you do Bellows and Cadmus and every other artist in here - or this whole thing is a bit patronizing. 

It's hard for me, having seen "Moonlight," to think all those Oscar votes aren't about content: here's a Film about Black, Gay, Poor People, and we must recognize it. Have I mentioned I'm reluctant to write this? I don't know what was going on in those Oscar voters' heads. And, to be fair, Oscar has never really been, despite the color of those trophies, a gold standard. But "Moonlight," isn't a best picture caliber film, in my mind, and neither is its direction or score (which is mostly the absence of a score; admirable restraint, I suppose, but not usually what gets you an award.  Maybe it should, for that.)  It all has the sense of giving an award to the cripple so we can feel a little better about ourselves. 

Three standout performances, however (none of them nominated): Jharrel Jerome as the teenage Kevin, and Andre Holland as the adult; Holland in particular brings an affecting vulnerability to every moment onscreen. And Ashton Sanders is a kind of wonder as the teenage Chiron; his performance will haunt me for a long time. If it means we get to see more and more of him in the years ahead, then those nominations will redeem themselves.  

06 January 2017

black bourbon

#3 in an occasional series of snacks semi-randomly selected from the kiosk downstairs. These were the best find so far. The taste is a reasonable facsimile of ice cream sandwiches, but with crunchy wafers (an improvement). Like all these snacks, however, too sweet when paired with masala chai. Might go better with actual bourbon. 7/10.
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11 November 2016

good day

#2 in an occasional series of snacks semi-randomly selected from the kiosk downstairs. These were disappointingly ordinary, with an unfortunate hint of coconut but otherwise inoffensive. Not too sweet but with the masala tea I think even less sweetness would work better. 5/10.
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