Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Leaving, by Václav Havel

Last Thursday I attended the English language premiere of Václav Havel’s newest play, Leaving. This is the play that Havel was writing during the Havel Festival and I flatter myself by saying that I see influences of the festival in his newest work. Havel flatters me in showing one clear bit of influence – I am in the play! I had read the play of course, but I had almost forgotten that my name is among those listed in the Gambacci firm (Gambacci is a villain, but I try not to take it too hard). Havel told me during the reception after the show that he wanted to include my name in order to acknowledge my work on the festival. Would I be exaggerating if I said it was worth doing the festival for that alone? A bit maybe, but not much. A tiny footnote worth of immortality.

Having said that, I can hardly be objective about the play, but I will say that I was impressed by Orange Tree Theatre’s production. I had not imagined the play in the way they presented it – a very British political satire – but it worked in a way that was different from any I expected. Havel mentioned to me that the production in Prague had been much different – more like a tragic opera. But different, he added, does not mean worse, and any good playwright must let go of his play and hope that it can sustain multiple interpretations.

I hardily agree.

As for the shades of the festival – perhaps it is that I see so many shades of HaveI’s earlier plays, as well as the very deliberate influences of The Cherry Orchard and King Lear (both quoted verbatim in the text). The play concerns a lifetime politician forced to leave his villa (surrounded by cherry trees) after he loses his position as Chancellor. As in many of Havel’s plays, there is an ambitious deputy working against him behind the scenes. In this piece, he is named Klein, thus encouraging the rumor that the character is a stand-in for Havel’s political rival and the current Czech President, Václav Klaus. Of course, he also resembles most of Havel’s antagonists. The protagonist, Rieger, is also similar to many of Havel’s protagonists. In particular, the play reminds me of Largo Desolato (in relation to women), The Memo (political machinations), Mountain Hotel (more in setting and feel) and Garden Party (it even deliberately recalls the chess metaphor used in that play). And it wouldn’t be a Havel play unless it had a "hubub" somewhere near the climax (a surrealistic point where the various characters appear and repeat characteristic lines) and ended (spoiler alert?) with a sincere speech that throws away every value the protagonist has.

I have to mention that the actors were all skilled and the theater (the only permanent theater in the round) was beautiful. Sam Walters, the director of Leaving and the Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, has been doing Havel’s work in London for 20 years, and will continue with a small Havel Festival of his own, producing the Vanek plays as well as a production of Mountain Hotel.

Scanning the internet, I see the British press has reacted favorably to the production, on the whole, though there are definitely some reservations. You can see some of the reviews at The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times. In Prague, the play received wholehearted raves--of course there it was also probably the most important theater event in over a decade, not to mention an important political event.

Even at the London production, I spotted some MPs among the other VIPs. It's exciting to have theater that engages politics so directly without ever becoming polemical. But then, that is one of Havel's fortés, and one reason why I am so enthusiastic about his work.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What is Jewish Theater? - an ongoing series

As the curator for the upcoming Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, I am confronted by an old question that often comes up at the Association of Jewish Theatre: what is Jewish theater?

I am tempted to answer in the way the Supreme Court once defined pornography: I know it when I see it. But that is of course subject to the question: is what I would call Jewish theater what someone else would define in the same way?

But perhaps that question is one reason for a festival. When I produced the Havel Festival, I didn't necessarily know what made a play essentially Havellian. Of course, the easy answer is that they are all written by the same man. But what makes gives one playwright's output a signature flavor? Is it something innate to Havel that comes out in his plays? Something innate to the time and place from which he writes? The more I watched the plays, the more I noticed similar themes, themes that spoke to each other across the plays, so that each play I saw deepened my appreciation of the next.

Will the same be true of Jewish theater? Is suspect so. In the next months, I am going to continue to try (and most assuredly fail) to define what exactly Jewish theater is, and in that quest I am interested in hearing from others who have thought about that question.

What is Jewish theater to you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

An interview with Eric Shanower

Eric Shanower and I met through a mutual friend, when we both attended his experimental film festival, MIX--not a very Ozzy event, but we started to talk about Oz, and it led to my writing a short story for Oz-story 3. Fortunately David Maxine, the editor, liked it, Eric illustrated it, and our collaboration had begun. At the publishing party for the release of Oz Story 3 David and I started talking about a new Oz novel for the 100th anniversary, and soon after (OK, years later) my first published novel Paradox in Oz came out, with Eric's illustrations. It received some nice reviews and some nice reactions, but perhaps more importantly, Eric, David and I were all proud of it. Soon after that (OK, many years after) the sequel, The Living House of Oz came out. It received less press--just bad timing perhaps, because the same review journals who had like Paradox ignored The Living House. I'm still ridiculously proud of it.

Anyway, both books would feel completely different if it weren't for Eric's illustrations, which in some irrational way I always feel like I can take some slight credit for. Of course, Eric's other accomplishments, including his multiple Eisner Awards for his current comic series Age of Bronze, argue that perhaps Eric is a marvelous artist, whether or not he's illustrating my work.

Here are some questions I asked him:

1. You have done a lot of art relating to Oz, much of it before we began collaborating. Yet to my (perhaps prejudiced) eye, it always seems that there is a slightly different feeling to the work we do together than to your other Oz work, which I also love. Do you think the writing style of the author whose work you are illustrating affects your depictions of Oz?

That’s an interesting observation. No, I don’t think the style of the author usually affects my depictions of Oz. When I illustrate your stories, I certainly try to illustrate appropriately for the text, but I don’t change my thinking about Oz. I think it’s more my relationship to the story and characters that informs how I draw, rather than an author’s style. I don’t think that’s the same thing, although maybe it is.

2. You have knack for capturing the essence of the original books while injecting a real sense of yourself in your Oz work as well. How influential is John R. Neill to your style of illustration? Do you ever look back to Denslow, when working on Oz? Does Neill (or do other Oz influences) affect your style when, for example, working on Age of Bronze?

The first “real” Oz book I read was The Road to Oz. John R. Neill’s illustrations in that book are a high point in his career. They made quite an impression on me. Neill’s work is one of the things I love about Oz. Certainly Neill’s Oz illustrations have influenced my vision of Oz immensely. It’s obvious that his depictions of the characters are the starting points for my depictions of them.

Neill continues to be one of my favorite illustrators. It’s hard for me to determine how influential his work has been on my style, but I’m sure it’s there near the foundation. I remember when I was in about fourth grade going through a period of trying to draw eyes like John R. Neill. Even now, usually in quick sketches, I sometimes find myself mentally referencing Neill’s approach to drawing people smiling. But for the most part if there are influences from Neill in my style or approach to drawing, they’re so buried in my subconscious that I’m not aware of them. I’ll leave it to my critics and biographers to ferret out any stylistic comparisons.

In Age of Bronze I’m not consciously affected by Neill or any other Oz illustrator. Generally when I draw I try to eschew all outside influence in favor of putting my own vision on paper.

I do look at Denslow’s illustrations for The Wizard of Oz when I’m required to draw a character that he drew and Neill didn’t, like the Wicked Witch of the West, the Good Witch of the North, or the Winged Monkeys. Also there are times I’ve drawn flashbacks to events from The Wizard of Oz, so I’ve looked at Denslow’s work as a starting point.

In the endpaper illustration for the hardcover edition of Adventures in Oz several characters appear who were originally designed by Denslow. I drew them based on Denslow’s character design. In a review of the book, the reviewer credits them to Denslow. I thought that was funny.

3. How have your views of the original Oz books developed over the years? Is there one thing that you appreciate more now that you have done so much Oz work yourself?

My view of Oz definitely has become more specific as the number of Oz projects I’ve written or illustrated or both has grown. I don’t re-read the Oz books now in the way that I read them as a child. Then I lost myself in the world Baum created. Now I have a much more analytical eye. But now I read everything with an analytical eye—perhaps that’s just a function of growing up and expanding my intelligence. Or perhaps it’s just a result of being a writer—I look at all other writing with that analytical eye.

I can’t read the Oz books very objectively now. There’s so much baggage in the storeroom of my head that I can’t set aside. I don’t have the Oz books memorized word for word, but I know the stories and a lot of the niggling details, helped by years of preparing to take quizzes at Oz conventions. I find, though, that at this point I don’t know the niggling details as well as I used to. I guess that’s a good thing—I have other things in my life to pay attention to. Still, I did take the Oz quiz at the Winkie Convention this past summer—after years of not taking a quiz at an Oz convention—and I was surprised at how many answers I could dredge up.

When I was little I believed that Oz was real until the day I asked my dad and he told me it wasn’t. I was disappointed, but I knew he was right. I guess if one has to ask, one already knows the answer. But that was a long time ago. I can’t really think of a particular way my view of the Oz books has developed. They’ve been part of my life for so long, always there in the background, easily springing into the foreground when summoned.

My view of the Judy Garland motion picture adaptation of The Wizard of Oz certainly has gone through developments. I loved it as a child and watched it every year when it was on television. It was my favorite movie for a long time and my view of Oz included both the images from the books and from the movie. When I began to write and draw Oz comics professionally, however, I stopped watching the movie and tried to put it out of my head completely. To some extent I succeeded quite well. There’s a scene in The Ice King of Oz where the Cowardly Lion is having his hair done. When I wrote and drew that scene I never thought of the similar scene in the Judy Garland movie. People pointed out the similarity to me after the book was published and they won’t believe me when I say that the movie scene never crossed my mind. But it’s true—that scene in Ice King was based on Leo the Lion who’s always getting his hair done in the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. Anyone who knows those books will know exactly what I mean. I did finally watch the entire Judy Garland movie again in 2005 at the premiere screening of the then-latest dvd release. I have to say it was a good experience watching it in a crowded theater where everyone was having a ball. I’d turned my back on that movie for many years, but I’m glad to say I really do enjoy it. Still, it’s not my version of the “real” Oz—just one more of the myriad adaptations—but I just want to scream when someone starts talking about the “ruby red slippers.” I wish they’d get it right or shut up.

I recently wrote the script for a comics adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. It was fascinating to pick over the entire book, going through it scene by scene, line by line. I did find some things in it that hadn’t stood out for me before. And I had to consider the possible backgrounds of the characters—the Wizard, for example—in more detail than I ever had, so that was interesting. The old-fashioned-ness of the writing—old-fashioned even for 1900, in a way—stood out starkly, too, because I had to figure out how to deal with it in a version for an audience of today.

What I really appreciate now in others’ depictions of Oz, whether written or drawn—or on television or on stage or whatever—is when there’s a sense of fidelity to the essence of the Oz L. Frank Baum created. I can spot pretty quickly whether someone’s attempt at Oz is plastic and dead or whether it’s captured at least a bit of the Baum life. Unfortunately most of what I’m exposed to doesn’t get it. Every once in a while there’s a gem, and that’s a cause for great rejoicing.

When I stopped doing the Oz graphic novels in 1991, I thought that I would be leaving Oz behind. And for a little while, I really tried. But I kept being offered attractive Oz projects and I kept climbing on board the Oz train yet again. Finally I stopped trying run away and gave in. I think that I’ll be involved in an Oz project one way or another for the rest of my life. At one point I thought I had nothing new left to say about Oz, but interesting new Oz projects proved that untrue. My vision of Oz can always be refined. Yes, I can probably draw Ozma in my sleep, but, for instance, illustrating Paradox in Oz gave Ozma new dimension for me. Still, sometimes my resistance goes up strongly. Every time I think, okay, that’s it, that’ll be my last Oz project, I just can’t take it any more, another one comes along that sparks my enthusiasm and I’m off again. I’ve reached the point, I think, where I’m fine with that. It gives me a chance to visit my old Oz friends again, and I only take the projects that interest me.

4. Was the process of working on Paradox in Oz different for you than working on The Living House of Oz? I know I felt I had given you far more new characters to design for the Living House than for Paradox--do you prefer having more original characters more or do you prefer working on variations on the classic characters?

I liked Paradox in manuscript form early on. It took me a long while to warm up to Living House, and even while working on Living House, I kept thinking back fondly to Paradox and wishing Living House was more like that. Not that I wanted the Living House story or characters to be more like Paradox, but I wanted my attitude toward illustrating Living House to be more like my attitude toward illustrating Paradox.

I think part of the difference was that Paradox took a lot of the characters and situations in the Oz books and played with them in clever ways. That was really fun to illustrate, fun to figure out how I was going to try to match your cleverness. Living House didn’t have a lot of that—it wasn’t “clever” in the same way. It’s a much more character driven story, so I had to warm up to the new characters.

Now I really like Living House and am proud of a lot of my illustration work in it. I never thought I’d like Living House as much as I liked Paradox, but since Living House was published, I’d be hard pressed to say which book I think is better. Well, maybe Paradox would still win.

(EE reponse: in some ways, I prefer The Living House to
Paradox now -- perhaps because I've had to read both of them aloud from time to time, and I find myself wincing, just a little, at a turn of phrase or two in Paradox. But more importantly, The Living House feels like an evolution -- maybe because I had more of my own characters and the plot is actually very political, in some ways, so it was fun for me to play with those levels of discourse. But then again it was fun for me to play with all the logical conundrums in Paradox. So I waver...)

5. To me, seeing my book fully illustrated and in print feels something like seeing my play fully produced and onstage--an illustrated book, like a script, seems unfinished with just the text. The look and feeling of the book plays a part in that too, of course-- the layout, the endpapers, the cover, etc. Working with you and David (the editor and publisher) seems truly collaborative from start to finish. Yet most publishers don't work the way Hungry Tiger does. Most publishers (usually larger operations, of course) separate the illustrator and writer, and divorce both from the process of the actual production of the book. Do you think the collaborative process makes a difference? Have you worked in situations which were less collaborative, and how do you think it changes the work (if it does)?

Yes, I’ve worked less collaboratively. But it only made sense to me to work collaboratively with you on those books (and, I guess, to some extent on the short stories of yours I’ve illustrated). You are easy to work with, too, since you were neither too guarded or too dictatorial. I think we respect each other’s creativity enough to listen to each other for the benefit of the project as a whole. I think our respective backgrounds probably help. Your background, theater, is a collaborative process, and my background, comics, is very often a collaborative process.

To my knowledge, most publishers of illustrated books don’t want the writer giving the illustrator any advice, but a comics script usually has all sorts of directions for the artist. I’ve even worked from comics scripts that have been sketched out by the writer. Comics artists usually don’t have to stick to the writer’s stage directions if they have a better way to present something—that’s their job after all—but tons of input from the writer is perfectly usual in comics.

Of course I’ve illustrated books where I had zero contact with the author because the author was dead. No input beyond the text available, period. Does it change my work? Possibly. I don’t know. Each project is unique, so there are so many different variables it’s probably impossible to say. But I do know that I won’t be able to ask a dead author to clarify some obscure thing in the text. As you know, when I’ve illustrated your work we talk a good deal and I welcome your input, but I don’t depend on you for answers. When I have questions, it’s because I want to discuss something I’ve already considered, not because I’m too lazy to think about possibilities on my own. I approach other work the same way. It’s just that if the author is dead or otherwise inaccessible, I have to make my decisions without benefit of discussion.

6. What is the most difficult thing you've had to illustrate in one of my books? In any book?

Probably the most difficult thing I had to illustrate for your books was the dust jacket illustration for The Living House of Oz. I did two paintings. The first ended up as the endpapers because neither David, the editor, nor I thought it turned out to be strong enough for a cover. So I drew a duct jacket featuring the exterior of the Living House prominently. Designing the outside of the Living House was tricky because it needed to be balanced among several factors: the traditional Neill Oz house design, the needs of the story, and my own sense of a pleasing design. I’m satisfied with my final house design, but David still doesn’t like it. It’s the major focus of the final dust jacket, and I waver between thinking the final illustration is really strong and really weak. Part of it is having a character that looks so little like a human as the main image on the cover of the book. Was that a good idea and did it work? I still don’t know for sure. David thinks it’s a weak cover. But then the major art book seller, Bud Plant, notes in their catalog description how attractive the cover is. Aesthetically I’m happy with the cover and I think it looks “real Ozzy.” But I don’t know if it sells the book like the Paradox in Oz cover does.

(EE - I like the design of the house, and the Living House cover--but I also agree that the Paradox cover really sells the book in way that's hard to match. I absolutely love that cover, it just works in an indefinable way. )

It’s hard to think what the most difficult thing is that I’ve had to illustrate in any book. I recall one thing about illustrating a book of Bram Stoker short stories called Dracula’s Guest. I had to draw a picture of the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg for the story “The Squaw.” This was before I was on the internet. I looked hard for a reference picture of that Iron Maiden, but no luck. I couldn’t find anything, but deadlines are deadlines. So finally I designed the illustrations so that I wouldn’t have to draw the entire object, and I just faked it. I’m rather ashamed of the result. Of course, AFTER the book was published I went to a torture exhibit at a local museum and, what do you know, they had the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg on display! Fortunately I had my sketchbook and drew the thing from life. If those illustrations ever get reprinted, I’m redoing a few.

7. How have has look of the your Oz illustrations evolved over the years? Last year, a collection of your Oz graphic novels entitled Adventures in Oz was released. If you were to draw that comic today, would it look different?

Since I started drawing Oz illustrations when I was six years old, the evolution has been large. Basically it’s matched the evolution of my drawing ability. One conscious progression I’ve made is in the clothing Dorothy wears. This is on display front and center in Adventures in Oz. Over the forty years John R. Neill illustrated Oz books, he always dressed Dorothy in clothing of the time, so I believe it’s part of her character to dress that way. In my earliest professional Oz illustration, I didn’t want to make a radical break with the last of Neill’s Oz books in the 1940s, so I put Dorothy in dresses that could have been from the 1940s or from the 1980s. But as soon as I could, I found excuses to put her into pants. In Ice King she wears a parka and snow pants for most of the book. And in Forgotten Forest she’s in pajamas. I reverted to a skirt in Blue Witch, just because I still didn’t think anyone was ready for Dorothy in blue jeans, but since then I’ve illustrated entire books with Dorothy in shorts. I think shorts are visually close enough to skirts that it’s not jarring. But people still complain. I don’t know why they do. Dorothy always wears what girls in the Great Outside World wear. Not that girls don’t wear skirts and dresses today, but they don’t wear them to go off on adventures full of strenuous walking and climbing.

If I were to draw Adventures in Oz today, I don’t think it would look much different. The drawing would be a bit better, I think. I wouldn’t make Dorothy as skinny as I made her in Secret Island. And I’d design the architecture with a little more skill. But my concepts of the Land of Oz and the characters haven’t really changed since I wrote and drew those comics.

8. You have been working, as a writer, on a comic adaptation of the Wizard of Oz. Can you reveal anything more about it? How does the process of being purely the writer (and working with an illustrator) compare with the process of being the illustrator alone?

Beginning December 2008 Marvel Comics will be publishing an eight-issue comics adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Skottie Young is the artist. His work on this project is really beautiful, although it’s nothing like my Oz comics or illustration.

I was glad that Marvel contracted me to write the series but not draw it. I would have had to turn it down if they’d asked me to draw it, since I don’t have time in my schedule. I did have to consciously make myself realize that the artwork would not be my vision of Oz, might look quite different than what I hoped or expected, that I might even intensely dislike it. Of course, I hoped I would like the art at least a little, but I was able to put up the firewall in my brain so that I could write the script and not be too concerned about what the artist did with it.

Fortunately, Skottie’s art is gorgeous and lively. The character design is certainly not what I’d have done. Skottie’s Oz isn’t based on any Oz anyone’s seen before. He started from scratch, basically. But it’s an authentic vision of Oz, true to the source material. I was happy to see the result. As of this writing, only the first two issues are drawn, so he’s got a way to go and many characters yet to depict. Skottie’s enthusiasm for the material is such that we’ll be going beyond the first Oz book with this series. I haven’t signed a contract yet beyond The Wizard of Oz, so I don’t want to be specific. But more Shanower/Young Oz comics are planned from Marvel.

Writing the scripts for Wizard was really enjoyable. I’ve read The Wizard of Oz many, many times, but I’d never been over it so closely or thoroughly before. One quirky detail that stands out to me from writing this adaptation—something I’d never paid attention to before—was that the Soldier with the Green Whiskers has Dorothy and her friends wipe their feet before they enter the Wizard’s palace. It’s so minor, but so characteristic of Baum’s writing. So of course it’s in my script. I was also writing the script with my knowledge of all the later Oz books, something that was impossible for Baum. That knowledge informed my script. I found myself having to suggest that Skottie not draw certain things or to draw things in a certain way so that our adaptation would be true to Baum’s Wizard text, but leave room for things from later Oz books. Consistency didn’t seem to concern Baum much from book to book. But I tried to pay attention so that nothing will jar readers who know the Oz books.

Another thing I did was to consult the several times Baum rewrote portions of Wizard or retold portions. Sometimes Baum was cleverer or clearer in the rewrite and I used that version in the script. He wrote another origin of the Scarecrow which differs radically in the details from the one in The Wizard of Oz. The second one is not better than the one in Wizard and I found that I couldn’t use any of it.

9. It's been a while since we worked on the last book, and though I have been (slowly) working on a book of short stories, I get distracted by projects that are more likely to be read by a wider market. The experience with The Living House was a little discouraging, because though I remain very proud of our work in it, it didn't get picked up by the major review journals and thus has had a much harder time selling than Paradox. Yet part of me misses working on Oz, and I would love to find time to finish the book. Are there any Oz stories that you are still itching to tell? Now that much of your time is taken with Age of Bronze, how do you feel about illustrating future Oz projects?

Well, as I said, after I finished the Oz graphic novel series I wanted to leave Oz behind, but I’ve become used to the idea that I never will. It’ll always be at least a dull roar in the background of my professional life, occasionally increasing to a trumpet blast. Age of Bronze has first place for my attention now and will for some time to come. The thought of taking on a book-length Oz manuscript to illustrate seems exhausting, frankly, and not something I’m at all anxious to do, especially if there isn’t much money attached. But if the manuscript arouses my enthusiasm, then it’s a different story. But there’s got to be some fresh angle, some challenge that I haven’t encountered before, something to hold my interest. Life’s boring if I’m just drawing the same Dorothy face over and over and over. And I don’t see any reason I should suffer boredom when I can choose something interesting. There are so many interesting things in life. And life’s too short to experience them all, so I can’t waste my time redoing what I’ve already done if it’s not going to somehow be new. (However, I do enjoy drawing the Scarecrow over and over.)

(EE - well, if I ever do finish the book, it will be a lot more than Oz stories...so hopefully something new, too.)

Visit the website of Eric's award-winning graphic novel series Age of Bronze:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Social Conscience in Jewish Theater

Here's a short essay I wrote that recently appeared in the Association of Jewish Theater's newsletter:

Should theater ask questions or give answers? Theater has always served as a vehicle for social conscience, and it seems natural that Jewish theater should take a particular interest in social issues. But how should theater in general and Jewish theater in particular, approach these issues?

In his keynote address at the AJT conference in Detroit, Gordon Davidson spoke of one of his most electrifying theater moments: watching a performance of protest play, raw with the issues of the moment. If someone had told that audience to march in protest, he said, they would have stood up and marched. There is a place for theater that steps back and reflects at a distance, he said, but there is also a place for theater that reacts, immediately and with great passion, in the moment.

This was clearly a theater of answers—and the answer was to act. As much as a speech in a crowded hall or a rally in a public square, theater can be an immediate call to action. And yet…as exciting as a call to action can be, part of me distrusts it.

The conference was full of calls to action and plays of social conscience, more so then I have seen in the past. Ellen Schiff and Julius Novick gave us a history of them—or rather, they gave us the history of Jewish theater, which, I was reminded, has been filled with playwrights from Odets to Rice to Miller to Kushner. And the Jewish Ensemble Theater treated us to a scene from Women’s Minyan, an Israeli play which is a call against domestic violence, among other social agendas.

Yet I wondered whether the segment from Women’s Minyan we viewed wouldn’t have been more effective if it hadn’t been as one sided. The abuser in the play turns out to be guilty of a host of other crimes, from homosexuality (considered a crime in the ultra-orthodox community where it is set) to incest. As the shocking revelations continued, I wondered what the play would have been like, had it examined the story of a man who had one crime alone, but was otherwise good. Is being a wife beater only to be condemned when it is accompanied by perceived sexual perversion?

Daniel Kahn and Psoy Korolenko demonstrated a history of Jewish calls to action in their music, performed a little later in the conference. There were Communist calls to action, Zionist calls to action, anti-Zionist calls to action, and a host of other isms, some ephemeral, some lasting. Perhaps most effective in their impressive array of Yiddish tunes was one called “Dumia,” a Zionist call to action that could now be read as a Palestinian call to action.

Each of the songs was a perfect, impassioned, representation of the feeling of those who wrote it. But what made “Dumia” so effective is it gave two sides of an argument, with equal passion, simultaneously. It was not a simple call to action but a dialogue within a single song.

To me, that is what theater does best. It presents arguments, not just for the sake of a single agenda, but also to create empathy and understanding of those whose opinions and beliefs are in complete opposition. Answering a question with a question is more than a punch line to a Jewish joke, it is a Talmudic tradition. Because truly, there are no complete answers.

But that power of the call to action—it’s undeniable. When Davidson spoke, I could envision myself in the audience. I knew the power he was talking about, and I wanted it in my theater. And Detroit is a city that calls for action. It is a city that has old money splendor literally right next to squalor. I could not help but notice that the incredibly gorgeous theater we visited in the city was in a neighborhood filled with old, abandoned houses, marks of the city’s poverty and decline.

Brothers and sisters, should we not arise and speak out against this injustice? Should we not put down our scripts and instead march into the Mayor’s office and say we are here, and we are not leaving until something, anything is done?

Or should we put on a play?

That’s a question to which I have no answer. Perhaps I should be marching. But instead, I write, I try to understand, and I hope.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Interview with Adam Gustavson

Adam Gustavson, the illustrator for A Very Improbable Story and artist extraordinaire was kind enough to agree to a little blog interview here. Here is what he had to say about working on the book and about being an illustrator:

1. How did you first get involved with A Very Improbable Story?

I was contacted by an editor at Charlesbridge over the phone, who made mention of a quirky story they had...by you... about a boy with a cat stuck to his head, that in the course of its narrative would teach the concept of mathematical probability. A boy with a cat stuck to his head? I’m usually a pretty quirky guy, and I’ve always had a leaning toward the matter-of-fact treatment of absurd premises. That said, not many of my published books at the time reflected this, so I was excited to sign on to a project that fill that vacuum of weirdness in my professional history.

2. When I first saw your illustrations, I was very excited that you understood both the style of the content of the book very well. I noticed, in particular, that the illustration of Cindy leaping on the marbles was almost exactly what I was envisioning, when I wrote that page. What gives you your psychic powers? Or rather, was your illustration style simply a good fit for my writing style, or did you alter it in some ways to fit this particular book?

Well, I’m terribly nearsighted, almost to the point of blindness, but I discovered that a diet high in carrots, traditionally beneficial to one’s eyesight, instead informs my clairvoyant senses, which have over time morphed into the production crystal clear psychic visions.

We were out of carrots at the time that I needed to start sketching this project, though. So I had to go with plan B.

One of the freedoms in book illustration is the ability to break from the rectangular format of “the page.” It’s actually a fairly unique freedom, I think. I’ve never met a picture frame manufacturer or found a stretched canvas that was prepared to have characters leaping in and out of pictures, but in the process of turning pages, it’s completely acceptable and at the same time can offset the expectations of both the viewer and the other characters.

In my mind, the most self aware member of a book’s cast, in this case Ethan, is probably smart enough to know he’s in a book. Maybe he’s been in one before, I don’t know. But I like the idea of taking even his expectations of the page turning, tension and release, plot developing rigmarole and turn all of those expectations on their respective heads. So to capture that, well, violation of having his little sister traipsing about his room, I felt she needed to traipse about the book in a similar way, with little regard for the pre-ordained order of things.

I try to do this sort of thing a lot when I illustrate; sometimes, it can bring surprising dynamics to a scene that might otherwise be lacking them. In this case, the scene and the course of the narrative seemed to be just about begging for it.

If I weren’t such a wordy fellow, I might simply say that it made sense to me. And the manner in which the story was written really did fit well into my aesthetic and conceptual sensibilities.

3. How much discussion did you have with the editor about character design? Do you do a lot of preliminary sketches?

None, really. I just thought long and hard about Ethan, where I thought he might live, his build, his popularity in school, his other hobbies, and when I’d procrastinated enough dwelling on and internalizing as much of this as I could, I set about drawing the young feller. The editor was pretty amenable to my leanings, though initially she wasn’t sure my Cindy was chubby enough.

4. One of the stylistic choices you made was to connect the cat, Odds, to Ethan's head, so that it seemed that there no border between Ethan and the cat. What inspired that choice?

That was a bit of a gamble I guess. I’ve always liked the treatment of darks in the work of Edgar Degas; they become a network of deep, vacuous shapes that lead from one to another, with highlights and details seemingly stitched about them. I wanted to some extent for Odds and Ethan’s coiffure to work this way together.

I also thought that if the reader could figure out how to get Odds off Ethan’s head, we’d all be in trouble. There’s nothing worse than attracting heckling from an audience you can’t steer from afar. “What’s he whining about? All he has to do is...” So I felt that if I worked in a manner where the viewer just couldn’t make out where one began and the other ended, we’d all have no choice but to root for Ethan.

5. At a signing, you mentioned that you are allergic to cats (as am I). Did you have to do a lot of cat research to illustrate the book? And are you a Claritin man, or do you go more for Allegra?

Luckily, I’ve had two ill-fated cat projects in the past. For one of them, I popped two Benadryl and wandered out to an animal shelter. I hung out in the “cat room” for an hour or two with a sketchbook, doodling, scribbling and making little notes. The cats, for their part, ignored me and spent the time jumping against the windows trying to kill pretty songbirds outside. I don’t remember much about the rest of that day, but I did eventually go out and buy a bunch of books about cats, so I could study how they jump, sit, lie down, and stalk. I dove back into those books and sketchbooks with A Very Improbable Story, as cats are deceptively difficult to draw and paint; their coats catch light a manner that to me seems very different from other domesticated animals, and their faces are rather compact, so everything has to go in just the right spot. Additionally, one thing that makes cats cats is their eyes...which aren’t incredible expressive. If I was going to get Odds right, I’d have to cheat on the eyes to make them more emotive, which meant the other facial proportions would have to be juuuuust right. My brother’s cat was kind enough to pose for a few reference photos along the way, too.

And I go in for Claritin redi-tabs these days. But if they don’t do the trick, it’s Benadryl and a big nap.

6. Did you like math, as a kid?

Not really. Looking back, I think I had the misfortune of being JUST good enough to land in math classes that were too advanced for me. I liked the theories behind math and mathematical principles, but the fact that math is learned largely through repetition of exercises nearly killed me. Every struggle, it seemed to me, led immediately to another rather similar struggle. I guess I’ve never been terribly patient, so I often turned in homework with the first problem answered and the next five skipped. If there had been cats with gambling problems involved, maybe things would have been different.

7. Is it difficult to become an illustrator for picture books? For a new illustrator, what is the probability of getting paid work?

It does take a lot of work to get there. For one, editors and art directors need to be able to trust your ability to draw the same character doing different things from different angles, to mix color consistently, and handle whatever they throw your way, whether you’ve done it before or not. So for a young illustrator, it takes a fair amount of self-confidence to jump in, knowing someone will say, “Well, you draw flying pigs and rural scenes very well; how would you like to take on a book about a third grade classroom in the suburbs? It has twenty characters...”

That said, I don’t think it’s impossible to land work as a new illustrator. I’ve been told that art directors love discovering people, and I think there’s some truth to that. And there are smaller publishing houses out there, which pay very little but may be more likely to take a chance on young talent. Getting the next book, and the next book...that’s actually a little bit trickier.

8. What would be your ideal illustration project?

More straight faced weirdness, I reckon.

As a kid, I always enjoyed anthropomorphic animals and eccentric adults...the sort of grown ups that don’t offer words of wisdom or proper, responsible guidance, but the ones incapable of editing themselves, incapable of remembering they’re speaking to children. Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Bumble were among them, and Mercer Mayer’s work from the 1970s was loaded with them too. Sometimes I think we’ve gotten very protective of children in fiction as a culture, and I think it would be nice if we could loosen up a bit and at least let them take risks during their flights of fancy.

9. What new projects of yours are coming up?

I’ve been doing a year of historical fiction, which is a lot of fun. I have a civil war era book coming out around Passover entitled A Yankee at the Seder, by Elka Weber and published by Tricycle Press. I was spouting all sorts of Confederate Judaica trivia while working on that baby. I couldn’t turn it off. My current project, for Peachtree Publishers, is another historical piece that I’m not sure I can give away yet, but it takes place in the early 20th century and gave me an excuse to paint a 1904 Packard automobile. And a one legged rooster. You can’t go wrong with a one legged rooster.

Check out Adam's blog!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas (redesigned web site)

Well, I'm taking the plunge once more...

In May and June, I'll be not only curating a Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, I will be organizing the Association for Jewish Theatre's annual conference.

I wonder, as always, when embarking on these projects, if I'm insane to do it again. They are exhausting...but they are also exhilarating. I love seeing the festivals come together, and I'm excited about this one.

Now comes the hard part: doing it. Finding the shows, raising the funds...

For those interested in submitting, I have all the details on the theater company web site, at http://www.untitledtheater.com/JewishTheaterSubmissions.html

As you may also notice, I've been redesigning the theater company web site. A few quirks are still around. OK, a lot of quirks. An overwhelming number of quirks.

That's what happens when you don't really know what you're doing, when putting up a web site. I just fake it and do my best.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Why haven't I written more political drama?

I am drawn to politics. I find myself watching the RNC obsessively, much as I watched the DNC. I am drawn to political plays, it's in my theater's mission statement, and I produced a festival of plays by Vaclav Havel.

So why haven't I written more myself?

Partly, it's time. I seem to have so many projects piled up that it's difficult to write everything I want to.

Partly, it's a distrust of overtly political plays. They are too easy, especially when they are based on nothing but venting anger. I recently went to a preview of Beast, at New York Theater Workshop, and I hated it, especially as it related to George Bush. Whom I can't stand. Whom the playwright, Michael Weller, can't stand. But to me, it was stupid politics, wielded with a large bat intent on hitting anything on its path, without anything to say except that the author was very, very angry and wanted George Bush dead.

I couldn't care less whether Bush is alive or dead. I wish him no physical harm, I don't even wish him bad fortune (OK, maybe a little, in my worst moments). I just want him out of the White House.

Which he will be, soon. So I see even less point to knocking down the stick figure.

But it is the sort of self congratulation of many political plays, the smugness of them, that drives me insane. During a panel at the end of the Havel Festival, a number of playwrights talked about political plays in a panel. Some of the playwrights had done work I very much respect. But almost all of them entered into a sort of empty, angry rhetoric that said almost nothing.

An exception was Havel. He said only one thing - I write plays that ask questions, not plays that give answers.

I see the same smugness, the same self congratulation, at the RNC. Of course, conventions are a ritualistic sort of theater, meant not to examine ideas but to provoke emotion. But what I admire are those few moments, those few politicians, who make the ideas the basis of the emotion.

Of everyone, at both conventions, the person who did that most effectively, I thought, was Bill Clinton. I was reminded of one great talent he has--conveying ideas in an emotionally powerful way without simplifying them beyond recognition.

I like Obama. I think he tries to do the same, if not as effectively. I know he is considered a good speaker, and he can be effective sometime. But I hope, God I hope, it is effective enough.

Yet what have I done to help, over the last eight years? I wrote an essay to go along with the Havel Festival, that expressed some of my outrage, in a (I hope) nuanced manner. I wrote a short play in my 24-hour theater festival called Extraordinary Rendition

And I have produced and directed some interesting pieces. Cat's Cradle is very political of course, and I wrote the adaptation and directed. So that was something.

And I vote.

But I want to do more. It is not enough. I want to write something more.

What are the questions that need to be asked? I know one, which no one asks, in either campaign, but is perhaps the one that haunts me most: What are we going to do about all the people, In Guantanamo, across the world, whom we have held in prisons without charges and without evidence. What are we going to do to restore our soul?

It is simple to be angry at George Bush. Or Dick Cheney. Or Albert Gonzales. Or Michael Chertoff.

I grew up with Michael Chertoff. His father was our Rabbi, was my father's closest friend, for a while. I didn't know him well, he was much older than me, but I know Michael is not an evil man. His father was convinced that Michael was destined for greatness. He was convinced that Michael had inherited genius from his grandfather, a well know and respected Rabbi.

If I wrote a political play, maybe it would be about a young man with great promise and great intelligence, who later works for a team of people collectively responsible for one individual to suffer deeply, meaninglessly, and needlessly. Not out of malice, or hatred, just out of indifference.

To put more than one individual who suffers like that into my play might be beyond bearing.

When will I be ready to write this play?

I don't know. Not yet. I haven't figured out all the right questions yet. But somewhere in my brain, I'm working on it.