Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Harvey Fierstein's 2014 play, "Casa Valentina" told the story of one weekend in 1962 at an upstate New York resort for cross-dressers, and was based on a real place. At that time, cross-dressing was illegal and cross-dressers risked losing their jobs and families for expressing their true selves. I visited the New York City-based headquarters of Cross Dressers International (CDI) to ask members how the play resonated with them and how things have changed for cross-dressers since the 1960s. You can also click here to read my interview with Casa Valentina star Reed Birney. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015


"The Americans" -- the hit TV show about a pair of Soviet spies living in the U.S. under the guise of a regular American married couple with kids -- comes back this January 28th for its third season. That's the season preview, above.

The show was inspired by the real-life case of a Russian spy ring that was broken up in 2010, producer Joe Weisberg tells Studio 360

One of the intelligence agents in that ring was Andrei Bezrukov, who was living under the alias of Donald Howard Heathfield. That alias sounds like it was generated by a computer programmed to spit out the most ordinary-sounding name possible.

Andrei Bezrukov
Bezrukov and his wife and fellow agent Yelena Vavilova (alias Tracey Lee Ann Foley) were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time of their arrest in 2010. He ran a consulting firm and she was a real-estate agent. They had two sons, then aged 16 and 20 -- neither of whom had ever been to Russia or spoke a word of Russian.

Imagine the shock the kids received when their parents were arrested. It happened when the family was celebrating their elder son's birthday party. "For a few minutes, [our sons] thought it was some kind of prank – a crowd of people in dark suits arriving in black cars," Bezrukov told the Russian Reporter in a 2012 interview. (Here's the full interview in Russian, and an abridged English translation.)

In the interview, Bezrukov talked about his views on the U.S., the work of intelligence gathering, and how his kids were adjusting to life in Russia, where they were deported soon after their parents had returned to the country in a prisoner swap.

The two sons, it was initially reported, knew nothing of their parents' double lives. But then in 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the couple had groomed their older son, Tim, as an agent. The couple issued a statement dismissing that claim as "crap."

The new season of "The Americans" picks up as the fictional married couple are considering recruiting their teenage daughter into the family profession.

In the English translation of the Russian Reporter interview, a few answers are omitted. Here, with help from Google Translate, is my admittedly faulty rendering of those questions and answers.

What qualities are important for an intelligence agent? What is the main one?

I think patriotism. This and only this is the whole meaning of the work. Money cannot be the meaning for an agent. Only a person loyal to ideas can do his work, understanding that the rest of his life might be spent in prison. No material benefits can justify that. 

What does the word “patriotism” mean to you? 

I think patriotism is understanding your place in the world as part of Russia. These are my friends, these are my parents, this is my family tree that goes back in the days of Yermak, when my great great great grandparents came to Siberia. For me to forget that is to be left with nothing. ... I am especially close to the idea of ​​a great and tragic history of my country, the ruptures through which it has passed, its endless, painful search for itself between East and West.

Everyone has a national spark like that. But isn’t that just the cover for a cold political struggle?  

No. Let’s talk about the national idea, without even touching on the political struggle. The national idea is to grasp what place your country occupies in the world, what we as a nation want, what we can allow and what we can’t. If we have a commonality and an understanding of who we are, where we are going, what the underlying principles arethat's what unites people, that’s what is called the national idea. The ideas that united us before are no more. They are gone. Russia is now in the process of forming new ideas. The political struggle is about the future of Russiaevidence of the ongoing process of the crystallization of the national idea, the element of creation. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014


En este episodio del podcast, una entrevista con Laura Bolaños Cadena, la argumentista principal de “Historia Semanal de Amor y Pasión,” y varias otras historietas mexicanas durante una larga carrera. 

Empecé a leer "Historia Semanal" hace 5 años, habiendola encontrado en los puestos de revistas en las estaciones del metro en Nueva York, y me encantó desde la primera página del primer número que leí. 

Laura también escribe comentarios políticos para periódicos, y novelas -- incluyendo las novelas Murió antes de partir (2009), y De ebrios, abstemios y osados negociantes (2010). 

También puedes leer la entrevista (más) completa con Laura, traducida al inglés, haciendo click aquí

¿Eres aficionad@ de "Historia Semanal" u otras historietas románticas? Si vives en Nueva York, escribeme a paulvdc (arrobo) gmail (punto) com y ¡vamos a formar un club! 

Laura Bolaños Cadena en 1996
Uno de mis números favoritos
Otra historia inolvidable de "Abril"

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Actor Reed Birney on his Tony-nominated role in "Casa Valentina"

Reed Birney was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Charlotte in Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein’s first new play in 30 years. The action of the play unfolds one weekend in 1962 at a resort in the Catskills for cross-dressers. The resort is based on a real place, now defunct, and the character of Charlotte is based on an actual crusader for cross-dressers’ rights named Virginia Prince, who lived the last 50 years of her life as a woman, and who died in 2010. Here's an interview with Reed, conducted by Paul VanDeCarr.

You’re playing Charlotte week in and week out. Are there any little aspects or mannerisms of the character you’ve discovered in the run of the show so far?

The other day in performance, I remembered that my mother and other women of that era would straighten their skirts when they stood up and smooth [them] out. I hadn’t thought about that, but suddenly I found myself doing that. I’m dressed in a nice Chanel suit, so it would make sense that I would straighten my skirt. So things like that keep coming up from way down deep inside. But very little was calculated in my performance, it feels like it just came all at once.

It’s as if the clothing itself brought something out in you, or in the character.

We had one very interesting cross-dresser come speak to us during rehearsal, in full gear. He was 70. You wouldn’t say he was a man and you wouldn’t say he was a woman, but what he was, was authentically himself. You could tell there was a great peacefulness at living this passion that he needed to live. That was hugely instructive in our rehearsal process. You put dresses on a lot of actors, and we suddenly feel the need to start mincing around. I asked him, “Do you feel the need to behave in a feminine way?” And he said, “Not at all—the dress and the nails and the heels just do it to you.” And it’s absolutely true. If you let it, it will affect your behavior and you don’t even have to think about it.

Another of Harvey Fierstein’s shows now on Broadway is Kinky Boots, an upbeat musical with an element of drag. Casa Valentina has a very different mood than that.

It’s a dark play. It’s hilarious, but it’s 1962 and there’s a lot of shame and secrecy. That first cross-dresser who came to speak to us said, “I just hope it’s not like Boys in the Band, where everybody is full of self-loathing.” I don’t think that’s the case with Casa Valentina. Sad as they may be at not being able to move freely in the world, they are quite empowered in their dressing and they are full of joy.

Speaking of Boys in the Band, there’s an important distinction to be made. Boys in the Band was about a group of gay men, and self-hating ones at that. But most of the characters in this play, and most cross-dressers today, are straight men.

I think people still assume that cross-dressers are homosexual, but 85% of them are straight.  

There’s a scene in the play where you’re trying to persuade the other visitors at Casa Valentina to sign their names to support a nonprofit you’ve created for cross-dressers, and also sign a “no-gay” pledge. They’re reluctant to go public, because it would threaten the little paradise they’ve created. You speak a funny and cutting line.

They really fight me down, and I end up by saying, “In 50 years time, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking, and transvestites everywhere will celebrate those in this room for making the hard decisions that led to their liberation.” It’s pretty rough!

I’ll say! As a friend said, that line shows how far we’ve come in our understanding of smoking! Not to mention gay rights. And there have been some remarkable strides in transsexual rights. But cross dressers, not so much. In other words, she was wrong—or rather, Virginia Prince was wrong.

Charlotte is single-minded, all she really wants is to have cross-dressers walk down the street without being freaks. It never happened during her lifetime. Cross-dressers are still so incredibly marginalized and forgotten.

Those lines make her seem, not calculating exactly, but very strategic.

As inflammatory as those remarks are, they are right. In 1962, people were very threatened by homosexuals. It was a big goblin, the idea that there was some predator who would swoop your kids away. So it was essential to Virginia Prince—and Charlotte—that we distance ourselves from anything that made [cross-dressers] seem perverse.

There is a feeling, watching the show, that this is anything but perverse—it’s very natural. How did you as a cast achieve that?

I had thought that [Charlotte] is a really classy lady, and so she would present her argument in a really poised and classy way. That seemed to work fine in the rehearsal hall, but once we got on stage, it started to seem flat. And so [director Joe Mantello] was quite rigorous about finding that spirit for all of us, but mostly for me as the presenter of the argument -- [Charlotte is] an evangelist. He kept saying over and over again, ‘these characters are not over there, they’re here in you, you have to find a way that this means everything to you. This need to dress has to be as personal as anything in your own life.’ So anytime we started to drift away from that or started to comment or it started to get a little drag queeny, he was very clear about, ‘they’re not actors, they’re just guys.’

Guys with an intense need to wear women’s clothes.

Yes. One of the wonderful things in the play is that there’s a wide range of skill at dressing. Some of us don’t even make any effort to keep our legs clothed in our dress, and others are quite accomplished. So I think that represents the range of experience with cross-dressers. Some of them are perfectly happy to just put on a wig and a dress and don’t change their personality at all. Others really acquire a whole feminine persona in the dressing. It’s a very serious, very beautiful play about the cost of living an authentic life, which is something all of us struggle with.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Dear Inside Stories readers,

I'm posting only occasionally here on Inside Stories. Mostly, I've been busy doing webinars and presentations about my guide on "Storytelling and Social Change" -- aimed primarily at foundations, but also useful for media-makers, nonprofits, educators and others. It's published by my organization, Working Narratives. Click the link for a free download of that guide.

I've also taken up posting every Wednesday on the Working Narratives blog, which concerns social-justice storytelling. I'll mostly be blogging there mostly, and only occasionally here at Inside Stories. So please go bookmark that page or join Working Narratives on Facebook and/or Twitter

But please do keep an eye on Inside Stories for occasional special features! Thanks for reading! 

Best regards,
Paul VanDeCarr

Monday, July 8, 2013


I'm pleased to learn about this book released last year, Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference. The authors have just recently launched a blog to accompany the book, and it's got some cool material that expands on the themes explored in the book.

The book is a "comprehensive guide to telling your personal story as an effective advocate for your cause or organization." It will help you decide what to tell, deliver your story effectively, and give good presentations and media interviews.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I'm finishing up work on a guide called "Storytelling and Social Change," aimed at grantmakers but useful for activists and media-makers, too. I'll post here when it's done.

In the meantime, here are a few recent conference sessions or webinars on the same topic.

From last month's National Conference on Media Reform comes two recorded sessions. One is called simply "Storytelling Strategies for Social Change," featuring presenters from the workers' rights, anti-war, anti-poverty and immigrant justice movements. Another session is on "Shifting Culture Through Storytelling, Media Making, and Collaboration." 

And from the Ashoka Future Forum comes a webinar on "Storytelling for Movement Building," featuring two special guests from the fields of health and domestic violence prevention, and hosted by Ashoka fellow Kara Andrade, a journalist, photographer and storyteller, and co-founder of HablaCentro.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013


IRA GLASS MANIFESTO: From 2004, Ira Glass' manifesto on radio storytelling, with audio clips to illustrate his points. A strong primer on what makes for compelling stories. 

"NARRATING LABOR STRUGGLES": Here's video of an event I was sorry to miss this week at CUNY, a panel discussion called "Narrating Labor Struggles: Storytelling and Social Change."  The panel discussion addressed the question of how storytelling can build public awareness of the struggles of immigrant and low-wage workers, and included director and filmmaker Nilita Vachani, domestic worker activist Christine Lewis, award-winning poet and writer Mark Nowak, and moderator Sujatha Fernandes. Note that the panel discussion starts at 49:30 into the video, and is about two hours long. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013


“Our stories, told by us.” That’s the slogan of the Neighborhood Story Project, which has high school students and others conduct interviews, take photos, and write books about New Orleans life and culture. One of those books is Before and After North Dorgenois, by Ebony Bolding. In the following excerpt, Bolding talks about how the city newspaper "twisted our words" in its coverage of a shooting at John McDonogh High School. Buy hers and other books at the organization's online bookstore

A week later Caveman was shot in the John McDonogh gym. I wasn't there and didn't see it, so I don't know how it happened. I was sitting by the gate at my high school, Clark, during the lunch break, when an undercover cop rolled up and told us to move from by the gate because they just had a shooting at John Mac and someone had been killed. I was hoping that it wasn't anybody that I knew.

I rode the Broad bus home with my friend Brittany, and she came with me to my house. By the time we got to my house most of the television crews had gone away, but there were still many policemen in the area. We were sitting on my porch just a half a block from school when a white man with a notebook came up to us and started asking us did we know Caveman and Head. He was asking me about Head, because he knew he went to Clark. Not realizing he was a newspaper reporter, we commented on what he had asked us, but it wasn't too much. He kept asking us if we liked Head and we couldn't say anything bad because we didn't really know him that well. The truth was that I would see Caveman every time that I went by my Grandfather's house on Dumaine Street in the Fifth Ward. As for Head, I used to see him at school. I didn't have anything against either one of them. To me they were cool people.

The next day they had a big write-up about the killing that included quotes from myself and Brittany. I couldn't believe how he twisted our words around. The reporter made it like we didn't like Head and Caveman. It was a big mess, and the reporter made more drama.

After the shooting, John Mac got a bad name. Stories about the shooting stayed on the news for weeks and weeks, a big beef grew between the Fifth and Sixth Wards, and Brittany and I were caught in between. People kept asking me, "Why you said that about that boy, why you said this?" I would just tell them to mind their business, because everything you read in the newspaper is not true. The conflict got to the point that people were telling me that I should watch out, that people were going to do me something. My mom got worried about me, and Brittany's mom got worried about her, so they pulled us out of school for the rest of the year.

From Before and After North Dorgenois by Ebony Bolding (page 39). © 2005 by the Neighborhood Story Project.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


APRIL 10-11. "ENVISION 2013: STORIES OF THE GLOBAL HEALTH CHALLENGE" Envision is a partnership between the Independent Filmmaker Project and the United Nations Department of Public Information, and addresses global issues through documentaries. This year's big Envision event focuses on global health, and includes film screenings, panel discussions, demonstrations of transmedia projects, and a pitch session. The opening film is "Blood Brother," the trailer of which is above. It's all free. See the full schedule and RSVP here
APRIL 17. "HOW THE HUMANITIES AND ARTS MAKE US HUMAN." A free panel discussion on "the moral imagination and everyday life," featuring playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith, NYU sociologist Richard Sennett, clergywoman the Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong, NYU professor and dean Gabrielle Starr, and moderated by NYU professor Jane Tylus. Reception to follow. See details and RSVP here
APRIL 17. "NARRATING LABOR STRUGGLES: STORYTELLING AND SOCIAL CHANGE" The CUNY Center for the Humanities brings together domestic worker activist Christine Lewis, social critic Mark Nowak, and filmmaker Nilita Vachani to discuss how storytelling can advance the cause of immigrant and low-wage workers.The free event takes place Wednesday, April 17 at 6:00pm, and full info is on the event website. (Andreas Gursky photo from the event website.) 

APRIL 28. "THE RACE TO INCARCERATE AND QUAKER PRISON WITNESS" A slide talk and book release celebration takes place at the 15th Street Quaker Meeting House, and looks at how the U.S. became the world leader in incarceration, and how comics are part of the solution. Graphic artist Sabrina Jones -- a member of the 15th Street Quaker Meeting -- will talk about her new book, "Race to Incarcerate," a "graphic retelling" of policy expert Marc Mauer's book of the same name. The book traces U.S. drug, sentencing, and prison policy over the last 40 years -- and how it has brought us to the record rates of incarceration we have in the U.S. today. The event is free, and copies of the book will be available for sale. Details at the 15th Street website