18 April 2014

"Midsummer Night's Dream" Review

Shakespeare’s funniest and most accessible play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, contains a commentary on itself: the play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe. As the “Mechanicals” receive their scripts and prepare their parts, the audience gets a rare glimpse into Elizabethan performance practices, with ludicrous and delightful results. The performance of this farce is, famously, both “merry and tragical,” “tedious and brief.”

That play-within-a-play might also be a commentary upon the many young companies that attempt a production of this work. No matter how tedious their performance, Shakespeare’s words carry them along into realms of imagination, and they are bound to be merry. I have never seen a dull Midsummer. Something about it makes it well suited to youthful actors: maybe it’s the well-balanced cast of characters, or the light-hearted language, or the three simultaneously unwinding plots, or the timelessly realistic dilemmas of love. It’s probably all of the above. It’s also the shimmering, multi-colored scintillations of its implied setting and costumes, that allow the cast to dance and sparkle with pure summertime beauty.

Players of the Stage, Allentown’s homeschoolers theatre company, is in the process of rehearsing Midsummer most obscenely and courageously” for presentation during the first weekend of May. And “Be certain, nothing truer; ’tis no jest” that these young people scintillate and shine in the light of Shakespeare’s story, bringing it to life yet again and proving that this play can be performed over and over again, by a thousand companies in a hundred countries, and never grow stale.

These young actors (ages eleven to sixteen) are tackling Shakespeare for the first time, under the energetic artistic direction of Sharon Gerdes, in an hour-and-a-quarter adaptation of the play. The diverse multiplicity of roles suites them well. Who is the star of the show? Is it Bottom? Puck? The four Lovers? The Fairy King and Queen? The Duke and Duchess? It is this very egalitarian nature of the story that makes it fit a large cast of student-actors so well: each has a chance to shine while still learning and growing. It is like a good ballet: well choreographed, each individual makes everyone else look good so that the entire ensemble basks in the glory together. That is the case here, with Players of the Stage. The casting is just right, with the strongest actors in those main parts. Puck (both Pucks, as it is double-cast) is a revelation of sheer joy: adorable, energetic, and everywhere throughout the whole play, as a mischief-making force. Watch the young Lovers especially, as they develop their roles and live into the language: there are some really good moments of textual interpretation when these teens take the words into their minds and make them their own.

This is a beautiful production. While there are no sets and props are kept to a minimum, the costumes will dazzle the eyes (much like in Shakespeare’s time). Costume Designer Elizabeth Gahman expanded her visual and technical range with the Fairies and Hipppolyta, vesting them in a fairy-tale mashup of the Elizabethan court and Arabian Nights. They provide a startling contrast to the plain white Grecian garb of the rest of the cast, thus emphasizing the difference between the Mortal Realm and the Kingdom of Fäerie.

“Take pains; be perfect:” Please check out their website,, for dates and reserve your tickets now!  

11 April 2014

Vocal Workshop Invitation

You are invited to a very special event:

Nadine Kulberg, mezzo-soprano and voice teacher, will offer a workshop on singing this Monday hosted by! 
Nadine will cover the basics of vocal technique and health, 
then work with you one-on-one to bring out the best in your voice.
Please visit the event page to see a list of what to bring and to RSVP:

04 February 2014

Moffatt! Nooo!!

If you have read even a few posts on this blog, you'll know by now that I am a rabid fan of BBC television, especially Doctor Who and Sherlock. When I fall for something, I fall hard. I think about it all day. I dream about it all night. I lose friends over it. I talk about it all the time, with anybody who will listen, and some people who won't. 

So I made sure to watch the Doctor Who 50th anniversary show and the Christmas special, and Sherlock's Season 3, as soon as possible and in some cases even sooner (thanks to the slightly nefarious actions of some tech-savvy friends).  

Please DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER UNLESS YOU ARE ALL CAUGHT UP on both shows, as this post contains MAJOR SPOILERS.

First of all, let me assert that I love these new episodes. I laughed and cried with the rest of you. I had tons of fun. They are probably way above all other television out there (but since I don't watch much other television, I wouldn't know). 

But they don't measure up to their own standard. In my opinion, these latest installments were much poorer art than preceding material. I've already discussed this with several friends over on facebook, so thanks to those I am be plagiarizing! 

Here are some reasons: 
1. They were cobbled together from bits of fan-food. I'
m not arguing for a general rule that fan-fiction is a poor genre or that art is made bad because of fan input; not at all. As The Tolkien Professor points out in his latest Riddles in the Dark episode, some of the greatest works of literature in the history of the world have been fan fiction, such as Virgil's Aeneid and most of Shakespeare's plays! However, I am arguing that in these two cases, the art has been made worse by the ways in which fan input has been tacked on.  Whatever fans were clamoring for, we got it. 

They've gotten away from really good story-telling and instead are feeding us sound bites (and picture bites) of snacky stuff. The story reads as if it were a collage of blog posts by fans over the last year. 

You want to see Benedict kiss somebody? OK. You want to see him shirtless? OK (even though he's super scrawny and the color of a dead fish). You want to see your favorite villain back, even though he's dead? OK. Death, no, not a problem here.

You want more regenerations? OK. You want James Bond-style action? OK. You want lots of Doctors together regardless of what nonsense ensues? OK. And so on.

2. They
contained very cliched material, poorly integrated into the fabric of the plot.

The James Bond sequence of riding the motorcycle and pulling John out of the fire in Sherlock 3.1 is one of the worst examples of this. Even worse again was the scene lifted straight from V for Vendetta: the Guy Fawkes lets-blow-up-parliament-with-a-subway-carriage sequence. That was poor writing, unoriginal, and poorly integrated with the rest of the story.  

But what I object to most of all is:
3. The internal rules of the imaginary worlds are broken.

Here is an example from earlier in Doctor Who series 7. In "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe," the exact same thing happens that had happened in "Father's Day"--
going back in time and doing something so the father doesn't die--with no bad consequences, although previously it caused the end of the human race and the universe being ripped apart!

Here is the biggest offense in Sherlock: Bringing back Moriarty. Now we have no parameters for judging reality in the show. Faking Sherlock's death was one thing. Faking everybody else's randomly is unfair according to the rules of the visual medium's game. 

One rule is that SHERLOCK ALWAYS WINS. It's essential to the story (and to its morality, I could argue) that Sherlock is always one step ahead of Moriarty. Let me expound.

I don't know whether Sherlock was actually fooled by the rhythm from Bach's partita, and I do think that Moriarty's suicide came as a shock to him. So Sherlock does not always need to be ahead of his enemies on every point. 

However, the main rule of the show is that Sherlock will always win in the end. Think of the woman: "Everything I said--it was just a game." "And this is just losing." So no matter how many times and in how many ways Moriarty fooled Sherlock along the way, Sherlock was ahead of him on the biggest point, on the only point that really mattered: He figured out long ahead of time that his death would be required, so he figured out how to fake it. If it turns out that Moriarty did the same, well then, the #1 rule is broken: Sherlock did not win.

If, however, it turns out that Sherlock and Moriarty planned their two fake deaths together (because SH knew he would need JM as a reason to come home and to keep the game going) then that just puts the whole show onto a different plane, with a different tone, maybe even a different genre, and would have serious moral consequences.

Two faked deaths would also have another serious (and, I would argue, bad) consequence. It would mean that we, the viewers, could not believe our eyes.
And that's what we've got in a visual medium: Our eyes. Thus, the second rule is that we have to be able to believe what we see

If we see someone put a gun into his mouth and pull the trigger, then we see the resulting fall and pool of blood, that is evidence of his death. True, we didn't see the wound, the hole: that would be too graphic for this genre, for television. I wouldn't want to see that. Yet we were given full visual evidence within the parameters, that JM was really dead. If he isn't, then we no longer have a standard for judging reality. We no longer had any foundation on which to stand. We didn't even see any blood with Magnussen's death; we just heard the shot and saw him fall. So maybe he's not dead either? Maybe nobody dies, ever. Maybe they get regenerated.

Of course, we can always be fooled within the visual medium as long as the pieces tie together and other, more reliable evidence is given. For example: the viewer can be shown a dream, daydream, fantasy, hallucination, or memory -- but some visual or textual evidence always puts that into its context. We might see the hallucination disappear into the character's eye, or text might read "Three days earlier...." If we are given conflicting evidence, as in Inception, that is part of the genre, part of the particularity of that individual work.

Sherlock needs to operate within a framework of realism in a way that Doctor Who doesn't. Otherwise, the science of deduction is useless. 

What I am talking about is a kind of cheating within the genre that drives me crazy: Like a murder mystery that reveals at the end that the murderer wasn't among the suspects all along, but was a stranger only introduced after his identity as murderer has been revealed. That's not fair.

03 February 2014

On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children

This is a guest post by J. Aleksandr Wootton. It originally appeared on his online writing scrapbook, Smithy of the Written Word, on April 13th, 2012.
J. Aleksandr Wootton is the author of the folktale-based threshold fantasy Fayborn, and of the poetry collection Forgetting: impressions from the millennial borderland. Please check out his writing.

On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children 

Shortly after supporting a local library event promoting fairytale literature, the folklore department at Lightfoot College received an animated communication from a very concerned mother regarding, in short, the "unsuitability of fairytales for children." As this seems to be a rather widespread idea (I might mention the Daily Telegraph article of February 12, 2012) as well as an oddly long-lived one, I take the liberty of public response. 

Dear Madame, 

Though you may be unaware of it, your email represents sentiments that have been argued ever since people first began to collect folklore into written volumes. As soon as the stories were set down in writing, they became frozen and lost that greatest attribute of oral storytelling: the ability of the storyteller to adapt the story to her audience. Consequently some writers, including such visionaries as Charles Perrault and Andrew Lang, have contended for permanently revising some or all fairytales to make them "more suitable" for children. 

Additionally there have been, and continue to be, modernists who consider fairytales to be too "unrealistic" or nonsensical, and who have proposed or written new stories to replace them. These new stories take their settings and characters from contemporary, everyday adult life and communicate whatever values and ideas their authors believe are particularly suitable to the times. 

Others -- J. R. R. Tolkien and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, for example -- have disagreed with this approach. I will attempt to explain why I myself agree with the latter, and not the former. I have two primary objections. 

Firstly, it seems to me that those who claim to be revising or producing stories "more suitable" to children than the old fairytales are really succeeding only in making stories more acceptable to the adults of the time, with their particular conceptions of what childhood is, or ought to be. And this seems a bit presumptuous. It ignores the reality that those adults (especially in the early days of the movement) were themselves -- as well as their parents, and their parents, and every generation preceding -- raised, as children, on the very same types of folklore they now propose, in their solitary wisdom, to "improve." 

Even Christians, Madame -- with whom you identified yourself in your email, and among whom I hope to be numbered as well -- even Christians throughout the whole world have been, for centuries, brought up on the old "pagan" folklore, without any detriment to their religion; or, if there has been a detriment, it is one that you and I and all who believe with us have inherited. 

The whole contemporary world has been founded on a more or less common folklore. Popular stories disseminated just as thoroughly -- though not as quickly -- in the ancient world as they do in the modern. 

(It is probable, for example, that the "French" story familiar to us as "Cinderella" originated in Southeast Asia. The tale we know as "Beauty and the Beast" evolved from retellings of the Greek myth about Eros and Psyche, which was probably based on older works in its turn. Both the Jews and the Tibetans tell of the Tower of Babel, or a building project quite like it. Etc.) 

Therefore we must ask: What right or standard have we to criticize or reject these stories? 

If the movement you represent, Madame, should ever gain the velocity necessary to escape the gravity of the old folklore, what kind of people should we expect to become? 

You might justly respond, to my second question, "I don't know," and still say, to the first, "the right of a mother who knows her own children, and what is best for them." 

Very well; to that assertion I can make no objection. But I ask you to observe, Madame, that you cannot by that argument make any prescriptions regarding the suitability of fairytales for anyone else's children. And I direct you to my second point. 

It seems to me that the fairytale-content which provokes, in some, the desire to revise or eliminate, is a matter of the details of the stories, rather than their essential structures or themes. It is, in other words, the witches and monsters, the magic and the violence, and the most whimsical or least "natural" elements that spark the controversy, and not what the stories are actually about -- not, that is to say, the essential themes or messages communicated by folklore. 

For these are the messages of the old fairytales: 
  • Sorrow is real, and so is joy 
  • Joy is freely available to all, just as sorrow comes freely to all, whether rich or poor, and without regard to changes in material fortune 
  • The world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger, but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone who has obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed. 
I do not have any children of my own; therefore what I am about to say may be hopelessly naïve, and if so I beg you to excuse it, and me, and leave my ideas out of the discussion on those grounds. But at least until the revelation of fatherhood I expect to hold the view I am about to state. 

Namely: The messages of these old fairytales are precisely those that children most need to hear. 

Is it not so? Ought not children be affirmed in the deepest feelings they, along with all people, experience about life? 

Ought they not be taught that material disparity exists, that fortunes do change for better and for worse, and that wealth cannot shield us from knowing sorrow any more than poverty hold us back from realizing joy -- in other words, that possessions are not what matters most? 

Would we not be doing a disservice to them, as well as to society, to let them go on believing that the world is safe; that they will be provided for and achieve worthwhile things even if they should remain stupid, shirk integrity, and ignore courtesy, acting only in self-interest; that they should rely on those stronger, smarter, and more able than themselves to solve their problems? 

It is not the details, the fiction, of the stories that really matter; it is the stories themselves. Nobody that I know of has expressed this idea more elegantly than Neil Gaiman, in his paraphrase of G. K. Chesterton: "fairytales are better than true; not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." 

What better message for a child to understand from her youth? What better medium than a story? 

If you can change, or re-write, all of the details of objectionable stories while preserving their essential themes, well and good. Hans Christian Anderson did both very well. But if not -- best not throw out that bathwater just yet. 

The story is told by means of its details, and the story should be preserved. There may well be devils in the details (in some stories there most definitely are); but we are told there are devils in the world too, walking about seeking to devour the unwary, and we may certainly hope our children will not be discovered in that group.

Therefore we come to folklore monsters and fairytale violence, which some suggest children should be sheltered from. I do not disagree that stories, and what they contain, should be revealed with discretion. Some stories are beyond the proper grasp of tiny hands, just as some books are above their reading level. But I don't believe that children should never be afraid. 

Of course it's very inconvenient for parents when their child develops an irrational fear of the dark or of the bedroom closet. That struggle, to exert rationality against unwarranted instinct, unfounded imagination, and overblown emotion, lasts long into adulthood. To act on what we know, when what we know is contrary to how we feel, can be just as difficult for adults as for children; but such discipline, at the very core of what it is to be human, must be learned, and somebody must guide children to learn it. If we never knew fear, we have never learned to be brave in order to do what is right -- and what better thing to practice and hone bravery against than an imaginary monster, in the closet or under the bed, before we are confronted by a real one? 

There are other lessons, lost lessons, that might have been communicated to us through the common wisdom of past peoples, had we not given in to this instinct to revise and censor their stories. For example: 

I can't help but wonder whether, if children grew up being told how Cinderella's evil stepsisters cut off their big toes and heels in order to fit their feet into the glass slipper in an attempt to deceive the prince's herald (effectively trying to look like somebody else in order to become somebody else, through dishonest and self-destructive means), we would have such an epidemic of eating disorders and self-harm. 

 I can't help but wonder whether, if entire generations had not forgotten the story of how "simpletons" -- somebody who thought differently than everyone else, someone whose accomplishments were not easily measured by normalized standards -- gained their fortunes through unusual means or by heeding shrewd advice (one even became the crown prince through a cleverly-performed, out-of-the-box comedy act that cheered up a depressed princess), we might not have gotten ourselves into our current factory-inspired, standardized-test-driven educational mess. 

Once upon a time, there was a saying: "it takes a village to raise a child." Whether that was considered so because a well-rounded child needs a diversity of perspectives to grow by, or because parenting is simply too big a job for one or two people to undertake alone, or both, you may take your pick. The fact remains that the old fairytales are the child-rearing stories rigorously selected and rigorously polished by the commonsense and everyday wisdom of a thousand thousand villages in a thousand thousand nations over a thousand thousand years. 

So let us have done, Madame, with this silly notion that my fairytales are unsuitable for your children - as if it were the children who have stood the test of centuries, and need no proving. Say rather, if you must, that your children are unsuitable for my fairytales, and pray do not leave them in that sorry state for long. 


J. Aleksandr Wootton

27 January 2014

Exploring Lewis's "The Inner Ring"

Earlier this month, bells rang, students scuffled through the hallways, and books opened once again.  The rusty gears of public education, silent during Christmas break, began to spin once more, stiffly at first.  School busses are toting lethargic children back to school.  Teachers are busy preparing for a new semester implementing routines to help ensure student success.  We strive to give each student an equal opportunity to change the future for the better.

However, the social experience that characterizes high school is another matter entirely.  We control our decisions, over whether or not we complete homework or study for a test, but we cannot alter the fierce judgments of others.  This pressure of being "in or out" is the origin of bullying, of which recently we have seen persistent campaigns in the press and in local communities.  We can all reflect on high school and recall the various "social groups".  In fact, the television show Saved By the Bell capitalized on this phenomena.  The show was a hit during my adolescence, and perhaps because it resonates with all of us who matriculated through high school and possessed the impulse to categorize.  This person is into this, so we file them in this group.  Quite contrarily, college affirms the brilliance of the unique.  In college (or at least it was my experience), those who blurred social definitions, who defied categorization, triumphed.

I cheer on students who refuse to be defined by shallow preconceptions.  The best thing one can do is celebrate uniqueness and despise conformity.  If you can unplug yourself from such frivolous desires (such as the desire to gain conditional acceptance), you have defeated the giant which psychologicially anesthesizes so many.  Unfortunately, this does not always disappear once we graduate.  When we mature, it is to new heirarchies, different systems which demand for us to adapt. We learn what and what is not socially acceptable.  We learn who must follow the rules and who can thwart them. It is in our adulthood where we make the disappointing discovery that we may change, but the awful heirarchies which made us nauseous can often survive adolesence.
And what then?  Do you change to gain this acceptance?  Do you at once repress the voice in your head which warns you that the acceptance is conditional?  Is association and not individual satisfaction your premiere goal in life?
Ah, but then again, a grin crosses your lips.  To be "one of them"!  To have access to the information, to the "right" people, to be seen with "that crowd" - what elation! What this will do for my reputation/job opportunities/social life!
And thus begins the uphill struggle, the sacrifice. You do things for the appobation of others. Yes, I did this, you say, but did they see me?  Did they notice me?  Doing activities for your own personal pleasure is lost, replaced with the burning desire to win "them" over so you can become "we".  But you see, if you do make it in friend, you will find a new struggle, one to maintain what you have "earned".  Sadly, there is no brass ring, just the illusion of one.  The joke is on you.  Your behavior will evolve to pattern yourself after "them" until no trace of yourself is left.  You gladly compromise everything for admittance, to find that what you tossed so quickly and carelessly on the alter was what you should have cherished.  But the time is gone and realization came too late.

C.S. Lewis spoke of this in his appropriately titled essay, "The Inner Ring".  In it, Lewis argues that the "Inner Ring" is actually menacing.  He states that if we do not take steps to prevent it, it will steal our time and ambition. The essay serves more as a warning than an exposition:
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action.  It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it - this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings, then you may be quite sure of this.  Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.  That will be the natural thing - the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort.  If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an 'inner ringer.' I don't say you'll be a successful one; that's as may be.  But whether by pining or moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in - one way or the other you will be that kind of man.
There is, Lewis illuminates, a deep meaning behind the supposedly benign use of the pronouns "we" and "they."  Lewis identifies an "invisible line" in which exists association or lack of association.  There'd be no fun if there were no outsiders, Lewis writes. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.  For some, that bears no importance.   For others, it encompasses the foundation on which they build their worth. Essentially, you are admitting that you are nothing of your own accord, that you require the company of others before that value arrives.  What you must do is disregard the impulse to elevate association as crucial to your value.  Exalt your own individuality, given to you by a God who established variety, over the conceptions which other people create.

Gerard Manley Hopkins once confirmed this in his poem "Pied Beauty"
Glory to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow, sweet, sour, adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Diversity is a keystone of creation. Differences should be celebrated. If you find yourself trying to fit into a social group, it proves that you do not belong there naturally.  Transitioning to the group is not an option; transcendence is.  Rise above the propensity to blend.  Those who treasure their uniqueness do not wish to change.  They see that the mirror reflects a masterpiece.  Loving who you are at your very core is absolute necessity.  Changing to simply be different is not the essence of who you are.  Those who truly know who they are would never entertain the thought.
You see, you cannot dangle what you assume is a privilege in front of an individual for whom the lack of that privilege has no value. A cup of water is only desired by a thirsty man.  If I care not for it, then it cannot be used as a means of control.  Live your life by your own dreams, not by the demands of the sacred oligarchy.

Lewis continues, The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.  But if you break it, a surprising result will follow.  If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, the other sound craftsmen will know it.  This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know...And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside, that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring.  But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric, for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like.  This is friendship.  Aristotle placed it among the virtues.

There are times where I have pined for that approval but it was not simply meant to be.  Individual solitude is more valuable than corporate association. In the past, I have disappointed those I love to achieve that association. Last year, I left my mother's bedside at the hospital to do so.  I deeply regret it.  My mother would easily forsake all others for me, and yet, I strived to feel "in" with a group to whom I clearly did not belong.  It is disheartening to feel alone in a room full of people.  I have made it "in the door" and have still not felt the warmth of the hearth.  The margins of "in" are just as cold as "out".

Lewis provides great advice here.  Do your work and be found a craftsman.  Value individuality over "people to know."  Figure out who wears a mask and who is genuine.  When you find the latter, hold them very close to your heart.  Delight in their friendship for they love you as you are, as God created you to be.