Sunday, September 14, 2014

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

She [Elizabeth Barrett Browning] had decide that poetry, whatever language it was written in, was most certainly work. To write poetry was the most worthwhile work in the world because poetry was truth and there could be nothing more noble than trying to express universal truths. She did not feel shy about calling herself a poet - even when she recognised that she had only managed to produce 'sickly poetry,' She had absolute confidence that with time she would do better and that the struggle to do so was worthy in itself. A good poet was always 'one of God's singers.' Trying to become one of this select band was an ambition she was proud of and did not conceal. It had nothing to do with what she called 'versifying,' that scribbling in commonplace books so beloved of young ladies at this time. This she found contemptible and not to be confused with real poetry which was dignified, serious, sacred and pure. Her family accepted her interpretation of her vocation reverentially. Only her father was tempted to make the occasional facetious comment and he quickly came to appreciate that his daughter's poetry was no laughing matter.

Nobody at Hope End [the family home] sneered at or ridiculed the role of poet itself - in the first quarter of the nineteenth century poets were the most admired of all creative writers. The end of the eighteenth century had seen the beginnings of the Romantic Revival, marked by the publication, in 1798, of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. In the decade of Elizabeth's birth Byron published his first collection of poems (Hours of Idleness,1807) and when as a nine-year-old she was starting to write poetry herself, Queen Mab. Playwrights no longer dominated the literary scene though Drury Lane and Covent Garden were still enormously popular theatres, and novelists, in spite of Jane Austen, Richardson and Fielding, had not yet begun to do so. To be a 'real' poet was judged a most suitable occupation by Elizabeth's parents who had no objections just so long as this did not tax Elizabeth's health.
Shelley had just finished

...public acknowledgement was important: she was honest enough to admit that it was not sufficient to write poetry but that having it read was part of the process. It was more than that. Seeing her work in print excited her and she did not underestimate the significance.  Her excitement had nothing to do with feeling she was successful - she rated popular success as shallow - but was more a feeling of intense joy here was tangible proof that she was communicating through her poetry.

Pages 34/5 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Margaret Foster. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Resistance is within

Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. "Peripheral opponents," as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.

Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art (p. 8)

'Resistance,' in Pressfield's terms, is that thing that holds us back from getting on and working at creative work. Procrastination is one of its most successful manifestations.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Savages

We caught up with the movie, The Savages, last night. It stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Savage siblings, Wendy and Jon, whose father Len (Philip Bosco) is heading into dementia. Initially each of the three lives in a separate part of the USA, she in New York, where she's working as a temp while trying to get her plays funded for production; he in Buffalo, and the father in Sun City, Arizona. So there's a great deal of contrast in terms of locale from the dourness of New York, to the winter snow of Buffalo, to the blazing sun of Arizona - even in the winter.

The father has been living with an old woman who dies suddenly early in the movie. His actual wife is still alive, somewhere, but it's never said where - she's a bit of a mystery to all the family it seems, and wasn't able to do the 'mother' thing. Apparently the father had been quite brutal with his son, in the past, though this is never explored in much detail, even though it forms an important aspect of the play Linney has written.

It all sounds like a grim story, but in fact it's done with a curiously light touch, so that we can empathise with the characters in spite of their self-focuses. Linney in particular makes a wonderful job of alternatively making us very annoyed or sympathising with her inability to see herself as she really is. Hoffman plays in that wonderfully understated way he was so good at; little on the surface but much beneath. He's a warmer character, inclined to burst into tears at a number of things, but particularly in relation to his current girlfriend who's leaving to go back to Poland because her visa has run out. He has a wonderful scene in which he's strung up in the doorway trying to get his back (shoulder/neck?) back into place. The material looped under his chin means he can just speak and no more, and then Linney gives him a piece of toast which he can only just nibble at. It sounds like nothing, but Hoffman makes it a delight.

The movie, scripted and directed by Tamara Jenkins, doesn't explain itself too much. It lets us work things out for ourselves, because much of what we discover isn't actually spoken aloud. And there's a wonderfully ambiguous line just before the last couple of scenes when Linney finally dumps her adulterous older boyfriend (he can't even talk about the possible death of his beloved dog without immediately switching to talking about having sex). She calls down the stairs to him: It's not about us. It's in answer to a question he's asked and we think at first she's referring to their relationship. In fact, this proves not to be the case, and we realise a little later that she's finally matured in some areas of her life.

The film manages to walk the tightrope between comedy and tragedy by including a number of bit players in roles that verge on the absurd, and the opening scenes themselves, set in Arizona where elderly people fight the fight against ageing in all sorts of ways, are shot as visual jokes. The film was highly praised at the time of its release but seems to have been mostly forgotten since. However there's an article on Hoffman in which mentions his part in it; the writer plainly thought the movie deserved better than to be forgotten.

Promoting the ebooks

While working on the sequel to Grimhilda! I haven't had much time to give to promoting that good lady herself, nor my non-fiction book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Both were published as ebooks earlier this year, one in January, the other in April, and while they had some interest from customers at the beginning, before I began writing the sequel (currently going under the name of The Mumbersons), they've languished over the last three months for want of sufficient attention. It's difficult to write and promote at the same time. The energy required for one tends to consume the energy required for the other.

Now that The Mumbersons is well on its way, and is awaiting a reading by a friend, I'm doing some work on getting the other two books back on their feet. I'd kept copies of a number of articles (on Evernote, of course) about promoting the books, and yesterday, while trolling through these looking for promotional ideas, came across a note about a site called Good Kindles, which, for a one-off (and reasonable fee) will promote your ebooks. I've listed Grimhilda! with them for starters, and we'll see how she goes. 

On top of that it was nice to find an unsolicited review of Grimhilda! had turned up on Amazon. Short and sweet, but nicely to the point: I was intrigued and delighted by this story. Great fun to read. It was contributed by a person who does a fair number of short reviews: Ruby,owl.  Thanks, Ruby!

Grimhilda! - a fantasy for children and their parents is available on Smashwords and a variety of other ebook sites, including Apple and Kobo.
The same applies to Diary of a Prostate Wimp.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Jonathan Lemalu masterclass

Last night Jonathan Lemalu gave a Masterclass at Marama Hall in Dunedin. Three young men - two baritones, Sam Madden and Tyler (whose surname I missed), and a bass singer whose name I missed completely - were given individual coaching on songs they presented to the audience (a much smaller audience than you would have expected, unfortunately). 

Tyler was up first with The Roadside Fire from Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel. Like all the singers he was asked what the song was telling us, the audience. What story was he communicating when he sang? How did the accompaniment add to what was being said in the words of the song? How could he portray more by his stance, his intensity, by thinking himself into a kind of dramatic view of the song? And much more. He also sang Bright is the Ring of Words from the same song cycle a little later. 

Lemalu gently worked with each of the young singers, not concerning himself too much with their technique or musicality, but with their storytelling. Sam Madden sang Comfort ye, my people from the Messiah. Even this was seen as a 'character' (in this case, God, or his prophet) telling the audience something specific. 

The bass sang a solo by Dr Malatesta, from Don Pasquale. In his initial rendition of it he gave a 'performance', in Italian, but the message wasn't too clear. It helped to have Lemalu tease out what he was meaning, why Malatesta spoke/sung as he did, how this could be better conveyed through a more dramatised version of the song rather than treating it as an aria. It helped also when Lemalu became a 'character' onstage, helping the focus. 

It was interesting to see how the performers' interpretations changed substantially once they thought about what they were saying and how to put that across. Lemalu gave them all sorts of ideas, and let them hold onto particular ones at different times. It changed the substance of what was being sung considerably. He also played with them including while they were singing, which helped ease tensions but also made them focus differently. 

Lemalu is full of ideas, modest, still learning (he said this), changing approaches that seemed set in stone, being more relaxed while maintaining a very high standard of preparation. He's also a great entertainer. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

About Elly

Last night we watched Asghar Farhadi's 2009 movie, About Elly. Two or three months ago we saw a later film by Farhadi, A Separation. The latter film was something of a revelation. It changed my view of what modern Iran is like completely. (I wrote about it here.)  About Elly does the same: apart from the fact that the women wear headscarves all the time, there's little to show that we're in a Muslim country. All the trappings of modern life are visible, and there's (mostly) an easy enough relationship between the sexes. 

Both films are about lies and lying. Or alternatively, you might say, about truth, except that truth is very difficult to deal with, and for the characters in these two movies, lies are readily available, and, in the end stand in the way of the characters being able to move forward. 

About Elly starts off in a much warmer tone than A Separation.Three couples (and three small children), a recently divorced friend, and a young schoolteacher come together for a weekend of relaxation at a beach house. Irritating things happen, but not enough to stop the friends enjoying themselves. 

In the first forty minutes or so, the film seems to be little more than an ensemble piece with a wonderful cast almost improvising the script as they go along. So it appears. Characters come and go across the screen randomly while we try and sort out who belongs to whom (and it took us quite some time; we mismatched two of the couples). It seems that the young wife of the oldest man in the group has invited the schoolteacher along in order to match her up with the divorced man, and things are going fairly well. 

Except that underneath all the bonhomie are disturbing currents, none of which we can quite put our finger on. Disaster strikes - but it's not the disaster we think has struck, and Farhadi leaves us hanging for a great deal of the movie as we see the characters deal with what is ultimately a tragedy, by constantly changing their stories, accusing each other, blaming, finding excuses, finally getting to grips with the need to tell the truth, and then not being able to.

Farhadi has an enormous cinematic ease: the camera quietly appears to be just catching things out of the corner of its eye on many occasions, but in other scenes he uses the more disturbing process for the audience of a camera that jerks and shudders in moments of great tension. The actors appear to move as randomly as in real life, yet time after time we see movements in the background that add another dimension to what's being played out closer to us. His control of his cast is exceptional, including the three small children, who play vital parts in the story.

The young wife is played by Golshifteh Farahani, an actress who turned up in another movie we watched recently, The Patience Stone. This was a highly disturbing film set in Afghanistan about a young wife who's husband has been injured in the ongoing fighting, and has gone into a kind of coma. For much of the movie she sits and talks to him, telling him things she could never say when he was alert. It's a considerable indictment on relationships between men and women in that society, and I find it hard to imagine that it would ever be screened in the country it's set in. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Carrying on listening

I've had some unexpected opportunities to sit and listen to other people's ongoing stories in the last couple of days, so it's been helpful to be reminded by Lynne Baab's latest book, The Power of Listening, that good listening can be affected by our own anxieties, or our desires to 'solve' problems, or our need to keep moving forward because we're busy - and much more.

One of the advantages of being retired is that time isn't quite so pressured. Whereas lunch times always used to be affected by the need to get back to work, that's no longer the case for me. And evenings aren't such an issue either, because I can work in the daytime and get want I want done then (such as walking the dog, or writing the sequel to my children's book, which is well on its way).

But being under time pressure isn't the only thing that gets in the way of good listening: our anxiety that we can't solve the problem(s) is another issue. And trying to solve the problem may be the last thing we need to be doing. The person may first and foremost just need to be heard. One of the things we learned when doing a course in pastoral supervision is that that someone with a problem may need most of all to talk out their issues. It's the fact of talking, and being heard, that's important, rather than your attempts at problem-solving. And frequently, in the talking out, the problems clarify for the person and some options to dealing with them arise.
Uriah Heep.
Artist: Fred Bernard

Lynne points out in one of her last chapters in the book that we require humility when listening to others. This can be difficult for people who live in an age when self-esteem, and self in general, are the 'important' things. Humility isn't something we moderns are very good at. That sense of putting ourselves aside in order to give someone else room - and doing it without making it a false action (like Uriah Heep at his worst) - isn't always easy for us.

I still haven't read the first half of Lynne's book, but the second half has been more than helpful!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Learning lines, and memorizing

I've mentioned recently that I was playing a part in the play Hamp, put on by Stageworks in Dunedin at the Playhouse.

With this play, and the one I did last year - The Sunshine Boys - I found something curious had happened to my learning of lines. In previous plays I've had to work endlessly hard to retain the lines, and even then not felt very secure. But with these two plays, once the lines have been learned, they're secure, and only a distraction (such as happened one night during Hamp) puts me off saying the right thing in the right place.

This is curious, because by rights, you'd think, being now at an exalted age, it ought to be harder for me to learn lines. And I'm not aware that I've changed my approach to learning them, except in one respect: I work through them one at a time until I can do a page or so of them from memory. Then I read the cue from the other actor, (either out loud or in my head) and (with my line covered up) recite my own line.

I learned the lines for Sunshine Boys very quickly with this 'method' last year, and the lines for Hamp came pretty quickly too, although, as always, there were one or two that remained sticky until late in the proceedings. But I didn't feel perturbed about that. I knew they'd come.

So maybe it's just a gain in confidence. Seems unlikely; I've been reasonably confident on stage these last ten years or so.

I do insist on one thing: that the lines are learned as they're written. If this isn't done, it's too easy to veer off course. You'd think that all actors (amateur actors, I'm talking about here) would learn the lines that the author gives them, but some don't. They have a tendency to partly learn them, and then, of course, they find themselves in trouble on stage, and have to paraphrase. The mind has the extraordinary ability to paraphrase, to substitute words with similar meanings, if we get into any trouble. But I prefer not to rely on that, and it's not ideal. It can be off-putting for other actors waiting on a particular cue.

Anyway, that's one aspect of memorisation. The other is that the only other thing I've really memorised over the last year or so is Psalm 119, that great hulk of a work with 176 verses, and a huge amount of similar lines. With this Psalm I had to use all the techniques I could think of to hold it together in my head. I got it to the point where I could recite it through, last year, left it alone for a while, and have been revising it this year, reinforcing things, and checking that I'm actually saying the right words in the right places.

The interesting thing is that even though I'd left it alone for a few months, the basic structural approach I'd taken to learning it survived, and kept the piece mostly in my head. Some details had wandered, and had to be pulled back into line, but having done that, the thing is once again on a secure footing. Furthermore, I'm now able to get past the techniques and listen to the words themselves, something that was quite hard to do when I was learning it.

A few days ago I wrote myself a note: now is not the time to give up memorising. I've memorised Scripture and poetry for years, mostly during the half hour walk I took to work in the mornings. But I haven't revised a lot of that material for some time, and the other day I felt it was time to put the revision work in and get some of those things back into my system.

I started with Hebrews chapter 12, something I learned many years ago. To my surprise, it was basically still intact, once I'd run through it a few times; the lines that had seemed hard to get under my belt all those years ago came back without too much effort, and already I'm feeling as though it's well within my grasp again.

The joy of memorising things is that you really get to know them. We can read something over and over and still find that we skim bits, or ignore some things. Once you start to memorise, you have to learn every word, and learn it right. This does something very good for the soul...

The Lavender Hill Mob

I don't remember ever seeing The Lavender Hill Mob before, though it's a film I've heard about since I was a kid (it came out when I was six) and have wanted to catch up with for a long time.

I finally caught up on it on DVD yesterday, and what a joy it is. It has a wonderful cast, led by Alec Guinness (with a wonderful inability to pronounce the letter R) and Stanley Holloway (seemingly full of his own importance, but a softie at heart), along with Syd James and Alfie Bass (as two small-time crooks brought in to help the completely inexperienced gold thieves, Guinness and Holloway). Charles Crichton takes T E B Clarke's daft script and gives it all he's got. What a team they were.

The premise is that the extremely mild-manned Guinness, who accompanies gold bullion from the factory to the Bank on a regular basis, has hatched a plan to snaffle the latest shipment. He just needs an accomplice who fits with his plan. Holloway, whom he meets by accident, runs a small factory making gewgaws (the Factory's name, in fact) for the tourist trade. Amongst these are metal Eiffel Towers which are painted gold and sold to Paris. If the towers are actually gold, and not just gold-painted, they can be easily shipped to Paris and stored there for future sale to those who are in the market for illegal gold. The two work together and everything goes well, until...

Well, you have to watch it to see how complicated it gets, but the result is a delight. There are so many wonderful details: Alfie Bass is the tiny little crook, but his shadow as he climbs through a window is enormous; Guinness wearing a knotted handkerchief on his head as they pour the gold, an angelic smile on his face; the crazy attempt to get through French customs where they're constantly sent back for yet another check by the annoying French officials; the totally daft car chase at the end with police cars chasing each other rather than the 'villains', an American driver's car aerial getting entangled with the police aerial so that Old MacDonald has a farm goes out to all the police cars, and a policeman, hitching a lift with Guinness and Holloway rousingly joins in the song.

Or the old lady who lives in the same boarding house as Guinness and Holloway and who asks, in crime detection language, if the police have sorted things out. And the woman who owns the boarding house, a harridan of sorts who's only four foot something high. Or the way Guinness is supposed to be roughed up by his co-villains, and isn't, and has to do the job himself while tied up with rope and blindfolded. It's endlessly inventive, and much of the humour is hard to describe because of its particularly cinematic nature.

The wonderful Britishness of it all is another marvellous aspect. Was Britain ever really like this, with comic faces and eccentric attitudes on every street corner? It's hard to know, but those who made the Ealing Comedies certainly thought so, and they've left a picture of Britain for us that is heartwarming and hilarious.

Oh, and watch out for the tiniest of appearances from Audrey Hepburn, near the beginning of the movie.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power of Listening - making a start

I was sent a review copy of Lynne Baab's latest book - The Power of Listening - about a month or two ago. With one thing and another, I haven't had time to get into it properly, but I've dipped into it over the last few days, just to get the feel of it, in particular chapter 8 The Listening Toolbox, and chapter 9, Anxiety and Listening. Because I do a little pastoral supervision work, these chapters have both proved useful in terms of reminding me about the skills required for listening in a particular situation (supervision) and listening to people in general, in conversation, whether it's a conversation that's skimming the surface, plumbing the depths, or just being enjoyable.

It's very easy to put yourself at the centre of a conversation, and after having lunch yesterday with a group of people I know reasonably well, and travelling an hour to the venue and another hour back again, I had some opportunities to consider how I was doing in the listening area. Not 100% marks, maybe, but reasonably high. I enjoy talking with people about what they're doing, finding out more about them, hearing their views. Like so many conversationalists, however, I have to watch that I'm listening to what they're saying, and not preparing to put my oar in while they're still talking. Getting the balance right can be tricky.

Of course, it's not enjoyable to 'converse' with someone who spends the entire time talking about themselves (unless that's what the conversation is intended to be about) but equally it's not enjoyable for the other person in a conversation to feel that as soon as they've told you something you come in and 'top' their story with something you think is better. It's so easy to dredge up some old story
you think is relevant to the topic, give it some frills and make it the focus.

Anyway, thanks, Lynne, for a book that's helping in this department. Even though I've read it out of order, I'll get back to the rest as soon as I can!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hamp over and done

The Stageworks production of the play, Hamp, is now over and done with, and I've wound up with a cold. Not the only actor, apparently; a combination of tiredness and a cold theatre (or at least cold on the stage itself) didn't help.
It's an odd play, as I noted in my last post, and I don't know that any of the actors felt they completely got to grips with it. Perhaps more rehearsal time and discussion about the characters might have helped, but we were constrained by a short rehearsal period, and so had to do our best with the time we had.
The audiences 'enjoyed' it. I put enjoyed in quotes because it's not a play you enjoy; you kind of endure it, because it's pretty obvious from early on that things aren't going to go well for the main character. It's a bit like how you feel about Hamlet. No matter how many times you see it, he's never going to come out alive.
I mentioned the following incident on Facebook, I think: one lady couldn't bear to watch it to the end and left her husband in the audience while she went out and sat in the car. 'That poor young man!' she told one of front of house people. There were tears from other audience members, and gasps each night when Hamp basically opens his mouth at one crucial point in the court martial, and lands himself in the poo.
One man, however, only got to the end of the first act: 'Not my sort of thing. Boring.' He'd already muttered all the way through the act, and would have been in line to be throttled by the cast if he'd carried on any longer. The first act is a long conversation between Hamp and his defending counsel - there are only occasional interruptions from other minor characters. It's the sort of scene that requires top notch intensity, because there's no real conflict between the two characters, not much for them to get their teeth into. But that's the way the author's written it...
The cast consisted of young actors, in their early twenties, and a bunch of older actors - apart from two guys who came in somewhere in the middle. As a group we got on well; there was no sense that the youngsters avoided the oldies. It's strange to think that in thirty or forty years time, if these young actors remember acting in the play, the older actors will have long been forgotten. It's unlikely any of us will live to be a hundred or more!

Members of the cast in the court martial scene:
Rob Hart as Prescott, Lindsay Smith as the Midgely, the prosecutor, Elliot Phillips as Hamp, Craig Storey as the Guard, Rob Monzari (at back) as the Corporal, and Brian Kilkelly as Hargreaves, the defending counsel.
Photo courtesy of Ian Thomson

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Different viewpoints

We had the opening night of Hamp at the Playhouse in Dunedin last night. There was a very appreciative audience who were obviously deeply engrossed in the play: we hardly heard a sound out of them all night, except for the occasional chuckle at one or two of the lines. I was interested in particular to see that no one laughed at the part of the play where Hamp collapses (too much rum) during the communion service. Plainly my concerns that people might find this funny were unfounded.

In fact, my perceptions, from the inside of the play, are obviously quite different to the way in which people see the play, as a whole, from the outside. My character, the Padre, opens the second act, under cross-examination from the prosecutor at Hamp's court martial, and then vanishes for the rest of the act, only to turn up as an important character in the third act. A number of the actors, in fact, only appear in the second act.

This has given me, as an actor, a slightly dislocated feeling in terms of the rest of the play. Of course I've seen the first act in rehearsal, and last night listened to it again on the Tannoy system that lets those backstage hear what's going on onstage, but because I have no connection with this part, I have to come onstage cold at the beginning of the second act, when several of the other actors have already been well warmed-up for an hour.

It's rather like being a bit-player in a movie: you turn up for your couple of day's shooting without having experience anything of what the other actors have been involved in. Not that I'm complaining: I'm quite content with the role because it's actually an interesting part - and I don't have anywhere near as many lines to learn as I did in Sunshine Boys!

I just have to understand that what the audience sees isn't what I see, and that the author of the play, John Wilson, knew what he was doing.