Sunday, October 31, 2010



Happy Halloween! 

Going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a morally repugnant experience. Not because of the content of the film, which features cannibalism and transvestism. Nor because of the sometimes revealing attire of the actors in the "shadow cast" who dress up as the film's characters and pantomime the action in front of the screen. Rather, it can only signal the progress of totalitarianism in our country that audiences have pretty much been banned from throwing hot dogs during the performance.

For all that, however, it is encouraging to see that a new generation of queer kids, theater geeks and other mostly 20-something misfits are still -- 35 years after the musical film was released -- doing shadow casts in cities around the world. (For this year's big anniversary, "Glee" did an episode jammed with Rocky Horror tunes, and a new Blu-ray disc of the film with special features was issued.)

In New York City, where I shot this video, the shadow cast puts on a terrific show. For Halloween weekend, they made special monster-themed costumes, and the host for Friday night, Felipe, got the sold-out crowd psyched up. During the pre-show, "virgins" -- audience members who were seeing the movie for the first time on the big screen -- were invited up front to simulate an orgasm.

As anyone who has been deflowered will attest, audience members are more than welcome to shout out responses to the lines spoken on screen. I remembered the basics -- like shouting "asshole" when the character of Brad appeared on screen, or taunting the criminologist character as having "no neck!" -- but I'd forgotten just how many responses there were. Here's an impressively thorough script of the film with audience responses interpolated. Of course, responses differ over time and from place to place, but after 35 years, many of them have entered the Rocky Horror canon. It's not just words that get tossed about, but actual physical objects -- handfuls of rice during the wedding scene, pieces of toast when someone proposes a toast, and rolls of Scott brand toilet paper for the character of Dr. Scott. Before many theaters started prohibiting it, you'd also spray water during the rainstorm scene. And then there were the days of yore when you could throw the aforementioned hot dogs.

Even without the hot dogs and artificial rainstorms, Rocky Horror is much enhanced by other forms of audience participation, and by the shadow cast. 

Actors have fun at it, too. Those I spoke with mentioned how playing in the shadow cast lets you be yourself, even if it's by being somebody else for a couple hours. The actors often rotate among roles. JD, a 10-year Rocky veteran you'll see in the video above, has played every role, male and female, at some point. The actors seem to be developing their own characters by adopting (and adapting) these film characters. But a cult phenomenon of this sort would not just grow up around any film. The story has to support it.

Not familiar with the plot? Basically, an innocent and newly engaged couple (Brad and Janet) get a flat tire during a rainstorm in the middle of nowhere. In search of a phone, they happen upon the kooky castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-described "sweet transvestite" who is just unveiling, to the assembled Transylvania conventioneers, his new Frankenstein-like creation -- a muscle-bound sex toy named Rocky, who wears only glittery gold tights. In time, Brad and Janet are exposed to Frank's sexual talents, and just about everybody ends up in fetish-wear before too long. The film also involves space travel, and a dance called the Time Warp. Want more? More, more, more! Go visit the film's fan site, the Wikipedia page, the IMDB page with the trailer, or here again is the New York City show page. Also, check out this video, in which New York City cast member JD does a fab half-and-half drag performance of the duet by the characters of Columbia and Eddie. Definitely worth a look!  

Saturday, October 30, 2010



Please check out my new podcast episode. To listen on the player above, click on the screen, and a play button and progress bar should appear at the bottom. Or if you haven't already done so, please subscribe to the free podcast on iTunes, by clicking the link on the right. I'm new to this particular media player, but I'll figure this out and future podcasts will be easier to play from the site. 

This episode is a bit of a departure from my usual interviews with storytellers and story-listeners of all sorts. It's a li'l story I wrote called "The Long-Suffering Tree," taking off from Shel Silverstein's children's book. I'll return to the regular podcast interviews next time, in a chat with John O'Neal, a founder of the Free Southern Theater, and the artistic director of Junebug Productions. But for now, I hope you'll enjoy "The Long-Suffering Tree." Thanks for listening!

Monday, October 25, 2010


Today, a little virtual visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Above is a short interview with PR officer Kacey Hill, who talks about some of what the Museum is trying to achieve. Originally called the D-Day Museum, it opened in 2000 to present the history of the amphibious assaults by Allied Forces during World War II. D-Day, as I learned, referred not just to the famous campaign in Normandy, France, but also to other assaults, including those on Rome and Saipan, also in June of 1944. The Museum has since become the official National World War II Museum; with the new name comes an expanded mission and scope of exhibitions. When I was there, a new exhibition about the role of Jewish people in (fighting) World War II, on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was being installed. 

The Museum deftly mixes broad historical treatments (big maps and other displays about battles, troop strength) with personal perspectives (personal artifacts, booths with short clips of oral history interviews). As many history museums do, of course, this one takes the visitor along a specific route in the museum, so that it can tell you a story of World War II in sequential order. Don't follow the order, and the story gets confused, right? This was pointed up for me by the presence, across the street, of the Civil War Museum (previously the Confederate Museum), which presents artifacts in a manner that is attractive but that has little narrative order; the layout of the museum, mostly in one large hall with cases in the center and along the perimeter, allows you to wander through in whatever way you please. It doesn't chronicle the major battles of the war, or tell you the story of particular soldiers throughout the war. That's a fine arrangement for visitors who are already knowledgeable about Civil War history, and are more concerned with weapons technology, or specific aspects of the war, or even the aesthetics of the period. This is all in striking contrast to the clear path -- physical, as well as narrative -- that you are taken on in the National World War II Museum. 

The World War II Museum felt to me as if it were informed by film, and not just because it uses some film clips; rather, in walking through this story, it's as if you are walking through a 3D film! The wall-size reproduction of a newspaper announcing the Pearl Harbor bombing seemed not unlike the giant newspaper headlines that spin out at you in some older movies; the wall text is a bit like the dialogue in a film, or the intertitles in a silent film; and the oral history interviews give us some of our main characters. Perhaps this was no more like a movie than some other history museums; I may have been influenced in this thinking by the actual "4-D" movie shown exclusively at the Museum's theater -- "Beyond All Boundaries." 

The film is narrated by Tom Hanks, for whom I gained a new respect; he did a great job. (He's also the film's executive producer, and a big booster of the Museum overall.) "Boundaries" tells the story (or a story) of WWII in just over 45 minutes, using 3-D props that pop up on stage or in front of the screen, such as an old-fashioned radio, or a guard tower, or the nose of a B-17 bomber, as well as surround-sound, elaborate lighting, seats that shake during battle scenes, and, if I'm not mistaken, flakes of (fake) snow that fall from the ceiling during a winter scene. It's all in the name of immersing the visitor in WWII, at least as much as can be done in a museum. I found the film informative, occasionally moving, and even, with its representation of the Hiroshima bombing, unnerving. At the same time, all the special effects diminished some of the gravity of the topic. I think that a well-told story can be every bit as immersive as a "4-D" movie. Still, I'm a specific viewer; younger visitors may need something that's informative and also attention-grabbing. The film succeeds in that, and in so doing communicates something about the enormous stakes and massive scale of the war. Below is the trailer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Here's a neat website for creative writers of fiction and nonfiction alike: Creative Writing Now. The site offers creative writing ideas, fiction prompts to get you started (here and here), free online courses for new authors, and more. Much of what I saw is most suited for beginning writers, but it also has resources for intermediate writers, or others who are other who have writer's block or just need some exercises and fun stuff to play around with. Take a gander!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Like you, perhaps, I've seen a good many films, exhibits, books, and other media about World War II and the Holocaust. The question on my mind upon encountering another one is, what does it have to say that's new? In a culture that's so saturated with stories, any story -- on this or any other topic -- has to justify itself, has to command the viewer's or listener's attention. 

This week I was fortunate enough to see an extraordinary short documentary that, to me at least, more than justifies its 40 minutes. "Ingelore" is about the equally extraordinary life of a deaf Jewish woman of that name, born in Germany in 1924. Released in 2009 and made by Ingelore's son, Frank Stiefel, the film tells a moving story, and is itself a potent reminder of why such stories must still be told. 

Lacking a common language (signed or spoken) with her parents, Ingelore is desperately lonely for the first years of her life. It is only when she goes to a school for the deaf that she learns some speech and lip reading, and meets other hearing-impaired children. As the Nazis take power, she is the target of taunts by her schoolmates, and later is raped by Nazi soldiers. Her parents manage to secure U.S. visas for themselves, and Ingelore would have been denied a visa, were it not for a stroke of luck. A U.S. official in Germany makes Ingelore's visa contingent on an informal hearing test. He turns his back to her and says a word, which she must then repeat back to him. Naturally, she cannot hear him, but she reads his lips, reflected in the glass of the framed picture hanging over his desk. With great relief, the family makes it to America -- Ingelore's account of the arrival into New York harbor is a tear-jerker, a reminder of what a potent symbol the Statue of Liberty was for people fleeing persecution and being processed at Ellis Island. When she learns she is pregnant by one of the soldiers who raped her, she gets an abortion. In time, she gets married, has a family, and is truly happy. 

Spoiler alert! In the final scene, surrounded by her family at the Passover seder, the prayer is read, which says (depending on the English translation), whoever recounts the exodus of the Jews from Egypt deserves praise. Ingelore's remarkable trials, and her own personal exodus to the United States, is not just a heartening tale of triumph, but attached to a vital Jewish ritual.  

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Facing History and Ourselves is an organization that works with students and teachers to "link history to moral choices today." The website says their mission is "to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives." Other  

I have a couple personal connections here. Facing History was founded in 1976 in my hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, and in grade school I was taught using some of their materials. The video above is about Arn Chorn Pond, a college classmate of mine who lost much of his family in the Cambodian genocide, but managed to survive himself through a combination of smarts, luck, and the help of an American refugee aid worker who adopted him and brought him to the U.S. It was only when students at his new home in the U.S. learned Arn's rather background that they understood his feelings and position at school. Arn's story is rather extraordinary, but as he says in the video, everybody's got one. And that story, or history, makes one's actions more understandable. Facing History and Ourselves seems to suggest something similar: that a study of history -- not just personal, but social history -- cannot only help explain but also morally inform how we act, especially as citizens.  

As Facing History and Ourselves makes clear, it's not just the big choices we face that matter; not just heroic actions such as being a resistance fighter or protecting Jews during the Holocaust. It's also the many little decisions we make -- or don't make -- during any given day, that accumulate into assuming (or neglecting) our responsibilities as citizens, and the consequences thereof. That's what's so troubling, and energizing at the same time -- we're always facing questions about how to be a good citizen, if we allow ourselves to face them. That's illustrated in this video (for schoolkids) by writer Jesús Colón, about an incident on the subway in the 1950s.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


A few items that caught my eye this week. 

STORIES IN FAITH COMMUNITIES: An essay (with lots of video examples) on "The Power of Story to Trouble the Waters and Heal the World," by filmmaker and media strategist Macky Alston, the director of Auburn Media, an organization that provides media expertise to religious leaders, and religious expertise to the media. Macky gives examples of digital (online video) storytelling that have been used in social action campaigns, and says that religious leaders can harness this force to great effect in their own work. "When you preach a story from your pulpit, how many people are tuning in? When you teach in your Torah study or Sunday school, how many people are listening? The smallest number of viewers of the videos you just watched exceeds the population of Baltimore." One of the most significant attributes of online stories, says Macky, is that they can be easily aggregated and shared. You can gather stories on a particular theme from hundreds or thousands of people -- and cites examples such as online databases of stories about South Asian immigrants to the U.S., Holocaust survivors, or patients with life-changing conditions -- I was particularly interested in that last one, which seems to have rich applications for patients and medical researchers alike. He concludes by saying that "Faith groups ... are groups of social actors organized around a sacred story that commits us at least in word to making the world just. Given that faith communities have succeeded throughout history to galvanize humans though story, we now must harness its power in new ways to organize this generation for justice."

THE DRAMA OF READING: A New York Times review of "Gatz," a 7-hour performance, by the Elevator Repair Service, of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Reviewer Charles McGrath says, "And what goes on in your head, in a way, is the real subject of 'Gatz,' which is not, strictly speaking, a staged reading of 'The Great Gatsby,' even though every one of the book's 47,000 words is pronounced onstage. Neither is it a dramatic adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel. It's more a dramatization of the act of reading itself -- of what happens when you immerse yourself in a book." The first character on stage, a man in an office reading aloud from "Gatsby," is later joined by other people coming through the office -- a janitor, a co-worker reading a magazine, the office tech guy -- who start to take on the book's characters and act out scenes. McGrath continues, "This, or something like it, is what happens when you get caught up in a book. You hear it in your head, and it takes over your waking existence a little, so you can't wait to be done with whatever you're doing an immerse yourself in the pages again." I love that notion -- a dramatization of reading. It almost makes me want to go see the show. But I may just content myself with the review, and think more about the drama of reading when I get back to the book now on my bedside table.

STUFF STORIES: A website called "Tales of Things" that allows users to tell upload photographs and stories of whatever object they desire. Here's how the site describes itself. "Wouldn't it be great to link any object directly to a 'video memory' or an article of text describing its history or background? Tales of Things allows just that with a quick and easy way to link any media to any object via small printable tags known as QR codes. How about tagging a building, your old antique clock or perhaps that object you're about to put on eBay?" Many of the objects on the site are fairly new, some are older, like this 1963 portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. Most of the "stories" I read are just a couple sentences, more like descriptions than anything else, and for that reason I was less interested in the content of the stories as I was in the memories and stories they evoked in me.

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM ON TRANSLATION AND AUDIENCE: Michael Cunningham, author of "The Hours," has a fantastic essay called in the New York Times called "Found in Translation." He says that any novel is a translation first from ideas and images in the author's mind into written words on the page. The published book is usually a disappointment as compared to the "cathedral of fire" that the author had in his/her imagination, writes Cunningham. When a book such as his Pulitzer-winning "The Hours" is translated into another language, that is only a next step in the translation process -- a translation of a translation. Later he talks about his imagined audience. "I should admit that when I was as young as my students are now, I too thought of myself as writing either for myself, for some ghostly ideal reader, or, at my most grandiose moments, for future generations. My work suffered as a result." Things started to turn around only when he started thinking of a more specific audience. And that audience's name was Helen, a voracious reader and a hostess at a restaurant he frequented.  "I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. I’d seen, rather suddenly, that writing is not only an exercise in self-expression, it is also, more important, a gift we as writers are trying to give to readers. Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal. It also helped me to realize that the reader represents the final step in a book’s life of translation. One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. ... Writing ... does not exist without an active, consenting reader."