Bringing the City Council meeting to a (participatory) stage

I have read through decades of City Council and other local commission minutes for research projects. Thus, I was intrigued to find out a playwright had taken real City Council experiences and put them together into a participatory performance:

Inside a hushed theater, a voice on the loudspeaker instantly lets the audience know this isn’t your typical performance.

“By joining us tonight” a soft female voice says, “you’ll be standing in for someone who was actually part of a local government meeting somewhere in the U.S. in the last three years.”

The show, for the most part, doesn’t use actors. Instead, theater goers are asked to volunteer to play the role of city council members, the mayor, and regular citizens at a city council meeting. The performance is staged just as if it were a real meeting, with real people participating in a play that reflects the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes nail-biting tediousness of participatory democracy…

“How do you take someone whose way of speaking or obvious demographic might be very different from yours and respectfully put it in the room?” Landsman asks. “How do you give voice to someone else’s language? For me it’s like walking a mile in their shoes – verbally.”

I would love to see this and to participate. The play takes something mundane to most people and provides an opportunity to see how things work and different people approach their community.

Here is why this has the potential to matter: Americans say that they like local government but their involvement is often limited (as exhibited by low turnout rates for local voting). And much of the time in local government boards, committees, and groups may involve arcane discussions of local ordinances, approval of paying bills, and odd local political or interpersonal disputes. Yet, these meetings help shape the character of communities. Even if there is a sizable public discussion about a development project or an annexation or a significant change, it is in the local government meeting that the vote actually takes place. These discussions and decisions can make a difference and set a community down a particular path for decades.

I would guess those who see this play do not immediately show up at all the local meetings eager to observe. However, at the least, it could help reveal some of the local processes that have the potential to impact all of our lives and communities.

Claim: Broadway brought NYC back from the 1975 brink

A New York journalist suggests Broadway helped revive the city and improve Times Square:

Much credit typically goes to mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, who cleaned up vice districts, pushed out undesirables and clamped down on nuisance crimes. Once the infrastructure was functioning and crime reduced, the argument usually goes, the natural asset of a great city, the draw of its history, the life-affirming force of its romance, its prestige and its pull, could all be trusted to work their magic. The politicians just had to make it possible for New York to be New York.

But Riedel argues that it was actually the theater and restaurant owners — people sick of plying their struggling trade in an environment that was collapsing all around them — who did the real work on the ground that transformed the fortunes of New York. The offices of Gotham City chugged along; people could head home right after work. But you can’t run an entertainment or dinner business if the police are telling people to get off the streets by 6 p.m.

So, in Riedel’s telling, the late Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization went to work, back there in the mid-1970s. He harassed cops on the take to do their jobs and arrest the pimps and prostitutes; he organized all of the businesses in and around Times Square so that they had a collective voice; he found private cash to fill the potholes and empty the garbage cans that the city was leaving full; he waged war against corruption and vice. Retail-style.

With some well-chosen allies, he went about this mission block by block, nasty business by nasty business, sometimes resorting to unsavory, hardball tactics. This was controversial at the time — streetwalkers had rights — but Schoenfeld and his pals also were confronting a massive sex business with documented ties to the mafia — a sex business that dominated the very streets where kids now go to see “Aladdin.” Schoenfeld’s contribution was not least his figuring out that the one had to go before the other could arrive. Ergo, the circle of life.

This may be a popular argument these days about those in the arts and some urbanists: culture industries can help revive moribund cities or neighborhoods. The artists or creative types move in first and then others follow, drawn by the intriguing cultural experiences and economic opportunities.

The story above complicates the narrative a bit though. These theaters had been present for a while – they didn’t move in all the sudden in the mid 1970s. The theater industry also had resources in terms of social connections and money to use – poor artists they were not. The narrative told above may lend itself more to growth machine models of urban development rather than cultural ones. A collection of powerful business owners (probably with the aid of political leaders) were able to make things happen behind the scenes to clean up and revive Times Square.

Taking McMansion battles to the stage

One playwright thinks neighborhood battles over McMansions provides compelling material:

The threads that run through “Two Stories,” a new play making its world premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company, are pulled from today’s headlines: “Neighbors battle over McMansions” and “Can newspapers save jobs with web hits?”

The topics are just two things that keep Utah playwright Elaine Jarvik — a former reporter with a love of houses and neighborhood aesthetics — up at night.

“I really wanted to tell both these stories,” she said. “There was a connection: my rights versus your rights, and what do we really own?”

The play follows Jodi Wolcott, an old-school journalist forced to produce stories that will draw web hits, and the Masoris family, who plan to remodel their modest house…

The tension explodes when Amir and his wife plan to remodel their house into a two-story McMansion that will change the look of the middle-class neighborhood and cut off the Wolcotts’ light and view.

The underlying story of the property rights of a homeowner (the American ideal!) versus neighbors (your new home threatens my own and the neighborhood!). What resolution can they find? I know these sorts of reviews don’t give away the ending but since I’m not going to get to Salt Lake City anytime soon, I would love to know how it all comes together. The last cultural product I viewed involving McMansions was Gone Girl and that story involving McMansions – with the author playing up the McMansion part in the early pages (a common theme in darker stories of recent years) – did not turn out well.

Measuring audience reaction: from the applause of crowds to Facebook likes

Megan Garber provides an overview of applause, “the big data of the ancient world.

Scholars aren’t quite sure about the origins of applause. What they do know is that clapping is very old, and very common, and very tenacious — “a remarkably stable facet of human culture.” Babies do it, seemingly instinctually. The Bible makes many mentions of applause – as acclamation, and as celebration. (“And they proclaimed him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, ‘Long live the king!'”)

But clapping was formalized — in Western culture, at least — in the theater. “Plaudits” (the word comes from the Latin “to strike,” and also “to explode”) were the common way of ending a play. At the close of the performance, the chief actor would yell, “Valete et plaudite!” (“Goodbye and applause!”) — thus signaling to the audience, in the subtle manner preferred by centuries of thespians, that it was time to give praise. And thus turning himself into, ostensibly, one of the world’s first human applause signs…

As theater and politics merged — particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire — applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero’s letters seem to take for granted the fact that “the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.”) Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume — and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length — of the crowd’s claps for clues about their political fortunes.

“You can almost think of this as an ancient poll,” says Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. “This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings.” Before telephones allowed for Gallup-style surveys, before SMS allowed for real-time voting, before the Web allowed for “buy” buttons and cookies, Roman leaders were gathering data about people by listening to their applause. And they were, being humans and politicians at the same time, comparing their results to other people’s polls — to the applause inspired by their fellow performers. After an actor received more favorable plaudits than he did, the emperor Caligula (while clutching, it’s nice to imagine, his sword) remarked, “I wish that the Roman people had one neck.”…

So the subtleties of the Roman arena — the claps and the snaps and the shades of meaning — gave way, in later centuries, to applause that was standardized and institutionalized and, as a result, a little bit promiscuous. Laugh tracks guffawed with mechanized abandon. Applause became an expectation rather than a reward. And artists saw it for what it was becoming: ritual, rote. As Barbra Streisand, no stranger to public adoration, once complained: “What does it mean when people applaud? Should I give ’em money? Say thank you? Lift my dress?” The lack of applause, on the other hand — the unexpected thing, the relatively communicative thing — “that I can respond to.”…

Mostly, though, we’ve used the affordances of the digital world to remake public praise. We link and like and share, our thumbs-ups and props washing like waves through our networks. Within the great arena of the Internet, we become part of the performance simply by participating in it, demonstrating our appreciation — and our approval — by amplifying, and extending, the show. And we are aware of ourselves, of the new role a new world gives us. We’re audience and actors at once. Our applause is, in a very real sense, part of the spectacle. We are all, in our way, claqueurs.

Fascinating, from the human tendency across cultures to clap, planting people in the audience to clap and cheer, to the rules that developed around clapping.

A couple of thoughts:

1. Are there notable moments in history when politicians and others thought the crowd was going one way because of applause but quickly found out that wasn’t the case? Simply going by the loudest noise seems rather limited, particularly with large crowds and outdoors.

2. The translation of clapping into Facebook likes loses the embodied nature of clapping and crowds. Yes, likes allow you to mentally see that you are joining with others. But, there is something about the social energy of a crowd that is completely lost. Durkheim would describe this as collective effervesence and Randall Collins describes the physical nature of “emotional energy” that can be generated when humans are in close physical proximity to each other. Clapping is primarily a group behavior and is difficult to transfer to a more individualistic setting.

3. I have noticed in my lifetime the seemingly increasing prevalence of standing ovations. Pretty much every theater show I have been to in recent years is followed by a standing ovation. My understanding is that at one point such ovations were reserved for truly spectacular performances but now it is simply normal. Thus, the standing ovation now has a very different meaning.

Quick Review: Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is currently running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier in Chicago. Here are a few thoughts after watching the show this past weekend:

1. For me, the primary appeal of the play was in the modern retelling of the story. Several parts stood out. First, before the play started, there were a number of characters from the crowd out and about on the stage doing everything from running a hot dog stand, trying to get people to sign a petition, to holding pro-Caesar signs, to trying out a skateboard. This helped foreshadow the important role of the crowd in the play but also added some levity. Second, the comparisons to the United States of today are intriguing. The play was set in Washington, Marc Antony was cast as a prizefighter, and the battle scenes in the end looked like urban warfare you might see on the nightly news. Actually, the themes of power, honor, and the line between being a popular leader and a tyrant would resonant in many nations today. I don’t envy artists who have to freshen up plays and other cultural works that many people are familiar with but

2. The second act, which mainly consists of running conflict between Antony and Octavius versus Brutus and Cassius, was more like a war movie than a play. The scenes effectively looked like American military encampments, fighting in the streets looked like Modern Warfare (complete with a burned out and flipped over car on the stage as well as a defaced Caesar poster where he was made to look like the devil), and there was a real edge to the action. It is hard to pick up this kind of tension from simply reading the play (though this may be simply my recollection from first reading this in high school) and this kind of quick moving action can be hard to reproduce on the stage.

3. The favorable review in the Chicago Tribune suggested Brutus should have been played with a more tortured approach:

Brutus here is played by a very capable British actor named John Light, a handsome, hyperarticulate, brooding fellow whose speeches are filled with smarts and context. Light is making his American debut in an Americanized concept with a pretty pathetic American accent. That, one can forgive him. He could be doing a political Piers Morgan (a redundancy?). But it’s harder to see past the deeper problem: Light seems to miss one of the most fundamental aspects of Brutus: a good and decent man who loves his country. Light’s Brutus is certainly tortured by what is and is not expedient, fair enough, but tortured ain’t the whole picture of Mr. B.

Light doesn’t let you feel in your gut that requisite inherent decency and thus when J.C asks that famous question, one’s mind goes to, “Really? What makes him different from all the others? Where did we see that?”

However, I wonder if this doesn’t also feed into the modern interpretation of this play. Do our conflicted heroes of today really reflect on their emotions? Or do we expect them to grimly move forward and finish the job? I’m thinking of James Bond here and his more resolute nature. Tortured modern heroes may not have the time to be tortured; there are often more immediate concerns and the next action scene awaits.

4. There was a lot of blood in the killing of Caesar. Enough blood that most of the intermission involved several stagehands disinfecting the stage, scrubbing the blood out of the floor, and wiping things clean. (Note: there were no splash zone seats but it felt really really close in the third row.)

5. The setting for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is hard to beat. Even on a cold February day, Navy Pier was an enjoyable place to be with a decent crowd all throughout, places to eat, and good views of the city. (Note: parking in the off-season is noticeably cheaper and plentiful.) Here is a picture of the view out of the southwest corner of the theater (apologies for the glare):


In my opinion, this theater is one of the best things Navy Pier has going for it so I hope it does well and even expands its offerings.

A new off-Broadway play criticizes making the American Dream about buying mini-McMansions

It has become common in recent years to link the economic crisis to the purchases of McMansions. Here are a few lines from the new off-Broadway play “Heresy” illustrate this:

Chris’ college roommate, Pedro (Danny Rivera), and tarty call girl lady friend Lena (Ariel Woodiwiss) appear as witnesses for the persecuted campus radical. With the help of Pontius’ blowsy socialite wife, Phyllis (Kathy Najimy), the negotiation for Chris’ freedom devolves into a boozy cocktail party and a well-meaning but exasperating political debate. The characters spout off arguments like, ”The American Dream has been reduced to mean a mini-McMansion bought with an unaffordable mortgage,” and ”The American dream has dwindled into a vulgar, materialistic view of life.” And so on.

A lot of commentators have argued that the American Dream has become equated with consumerism. I remarked recently to one of my classes that this seems to be an odd interpretation of the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” suggested in the Declaration of Independence.

But, there is little doubt that owning property was an important consideration for the American colonists and that owning a home today is one key marker of “making it” in America. I suspect the real issue here could be two things:

1. Buying and consuming more than one needs. It is one thing to be self-sufficient or comfortable and another to be excessive.

2. There are issues when individuals care more about acquiring and protecting their own possessions as opposed to caring about and contributing to the larger community. This has been a tension throughout American history.

Another note of interest: what exactly is a mini-McMansion and how does it differ from a McMansion? McMansions are usually thought to be quite large, probably somewhere between 3-10,000 square feet. Thus, a mini-McMansion would be smaller but the average new home in the United States is around 2,500 square feet so is this typical new home automatically a mini-McMansion?

Plans for purchase of Wheaton Grand Theater; hope for larger economic impact

Many older American downtowns are looking for ways to bring in new business and revenues. One way to achieve this is to pursue entertainment opportunities. Here is how this is currently playing out in Wheaton, Illinois where there is a perspective buyer for the Wheaton Theater:

Downtown property owner and lifelong Wheaton resident Jim Atten said he has “verbally agreed” to buy the theater, constructed in 1925, from Elmhurst-based Suburban Bank and Trust.

“It’s going to take a while to do, but our plan is to turn it into a performing arts and movie theater,” Atten said…

Atten said, if the purchase goes through, an extensive fundraising effort will be launched to make a dent in the necessary repairs and remodeling in the building, which he estimated could be about $5 million…

The theater closed in the 1990s and after an unsuccessful attempt by the Wheaton Grand Theater Corp. to revive it by hosting concerts, the deed was given up to the bank after coming up short on a loan payment.

Last year, Wheaton voters rejected a proposal to let the city use $150,000 in public funds each year to renovate the building…

Still, [Wheaton mayor] Gresk said the expected purchase is a “wonderful, huge first step.”

We’ll see how this moves forward. The benefits of a theater for a smaller downtown could be large: theaters can generate money themselves but can also attract other business as theater goers eat and shop nearby, festivals could make use of the space (think film, music, art, and theater festivals), and this building could serve as an example of how to effectively remodel and utilize older spaces. Smaller downtowns need spaces like this to succeed, partly to help provide energy and people for all of the downtown but also to make good use of storefront space that might be difficult to fill with other uses.

Changing sets in “Clybourne Park” from a nice 1959 house to a home ready to be knocked down for a McMansion

The play Clyboune Park is on Broadway and just won a 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. In going from Act 1 to Act 2, the play shifts from a house in 1959 to the same home 50 years later that is ripe for a McMansion teardown:

That’s because Clybourne Park is a biting, funny riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun, one that takes place in the house that Hansberry’s African-American characters purchase in an otherwise all-white neighborhood. It’s talked about, but never seen, in her play, but it’s the fulcrum of the conversations in Clybourne Park.

“The first act is in 1959, in sort of an Eisenhower-era middle class/working class household,” Ostling explains. “The people are packing up to move. And in the second act, it’s 2009. The neighborhood sort of went down, the house is trashed, and they’re preparing to raze it and build a McMansion. So it’s really two completely different sets.”

In the first act, the set has a cozy, lived-in feel — from the flowery 1950s wallpaper to the period doorknobs. When the curtain rises for Act 2, most of the details have changed significantly.

“All the woodwork is painted over,” Ostling says. “The front door has been replaced — because we were thinking, you know, they probably wanted more security, so that nice wood-and-glass front door is replaced with a security door that has some serious bolts in it.”

During intermission, the set has to be changed very, very quickly; a crew of five swings walls in a highly coordinated intermission ballet. When they first rehearsed the changeover, it took 30 or 40 minutes. Now, Ostling says, “We’re not waiting for the crew at all. We’re waiting for people to go to the bathroom!”

The home may be the same but much has changed between 1959 and 2009, both in American neighborhoods as in what Americans expect in their interiors. I would be interested to see what the “ready to be razed for a McMansion” interior look is these days – probably not much granite and stainless steel.

I’ve always been intrigued by how homes are portrayed on TV, in movies, and in plays. On one hand, they are typically depicted as “average” places. Of course, this look is very staged and I’m not sure these homes really look like typical homes. Yet, they always feel a little strange already as you know they are often cutaway all along one angle to allow for cameras. You know what this is like if you have seen a play or gone on a TV set where the interior looks a little familiar but is completely open with plenty of room for cameras and lights.

Portraying fear and multiculturalism in the Australian suburbs

An Australian playwright talks about what he saw in the suburbs that prompted him to write his first play titled Little Borders:

Several years ago, my family home in Adelaide was knocked down and rebuilt. The suburb was once a new development, built onto what had originally been swampland. Over the years, the house had begun to sink; the kitchen was slightly lower than the adjacent rooms, and a crack ran through the length of the ceiling. Despite the suburb’s swampy foundations, our street was pristine. It was quiet, lined with trees, and curved alongside a man-made lake. People jogged. They walked their dogs. They smiled at strangers.

While our family home was being rebuilt, we moved to a rental property in a nearby suburb. The house was on a main road. We woke up at night to the sound of motorists loudly hammering their horns. My brother and I started walking to the corner store barefoot, in board shorts, to buy frozen peas and schnitzels.

We came home one day to find the house across the street sealed off by police tape, with hazmat-suited officers wandering in and out. The same prostitute kept making conversation with me at the bus stop. She was very friendly-and liked that I was half-Maltese, as she herself was born in Greece and was planning to return there later that year – but it was still a bizarre culture shock.

When we finally moved back to our rebuilt home, I remained fascinated with the idea of suburbs that are geographically close, but socioeconomically divided. I overheard our smiling, jogging, dog-walking neighbours talking in racially incensed language about the new residents of the housing commission homes down the road, reminding each other to lock their cars at night.

At the same time, both major political parties were battling it out over the issue of asylum seekers, with each leader attempting to court votes by promising a stronger brand of xenophobia than their opponent. From both sides, the message was clear: Boat People are approaching fast, they pose a threat to our national security, and the only rational response is mass panic.

I became interested in exploring how these notions of class difference and fear of outsiders clashed with the image of Australia as an egalitarian nation that celebrates its multiculturalism. At some point in my research, I struck upon the idea of setting the play in a gated community, which gave these issues potency, etching them into the physical world of the play. It was from this point that Little Borders really started to take shape.

This sounds like it could be an interesting play. I wonder how much it will be able to escape common cliches about suburban life that have been bandied about around in the United States since the 1950s.

The description of the suburbs quoted above does hint at the changes that American (and apparently Australian?) suburbs have experienced in recent years: they are becoming more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity as well as social class. Of course, there has been an uptick in gated communities as some suburban residents don’t look on these changes fondly and there are still profound divisions between certain suburbs.

A question: are there any plays that see suburbs as good places? For example, you could flip the above story a bit and suggest that suburbs that were once closed off to “others” are now slowly opening up which means new opportunities for some. The suburbs will likely never be ideal but there have been some notable changes in recent years.

McMansion = a “home [that] had a heart and it was ripped out”?

The award-winning play “Rabbit Hole” includes an interesting view of the McMansion:

A child dies, a mother grieves, a father agonizes and a family is changed forever…

For “Rabbit Hole,” set designer Susan Crabtree has created a house that outwardly reflects an upper-middle-class lifestyle, yet frames a troubled family within.

In notes for the press, Crabtree says of her inspiration, “We wanted to create an impression of a ‘McMansion’ — a well-appointed home. But, as the story evolves, we discover the home had a heart and it was ripped out. In the end, the house is just a house — people are the real home. They have to find their family again as they turn to each other.”

The play earned the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The playwright was sure to include doses of comic relief along with thought-provoking lines to further draw in the audience. Its 2006 debut on Broadway earned “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon a 2007 Tony Award for Best Actress in a play, among three other Tony nominations. Her cast included fellow actors John Slattery of “Mad Men” fame and Tyne Daly from “Cagney and Lacy.”

Maybe this play isn’t really about the suburbs or certain kinds of homes but the description sounds like it builds upon some common ideas. I wonder if McMansion critics would like this depiction of such a house: it is place that may look nice but it has no heart. In other words, a McMansion doesn’t create or help develop a family – rather, it may even hinder them from forming deeper relationships. Put another way, you can buy the impressive looking house but that is not what really matters in the long run. This play also seems to draw upon common critiques of suburbia, the land where everyone acts like they have it together but the nice homes and communities hide desperate tales.