Category Archives: Interviews

IRINA BROOK’S STAGE OBSESSION: ‘IT’S BEEN 50 YEARS – THEATRE, THEATRE, THEATRE!’ ·

(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/28; Photo: The sunshine that blasts away the shadows… Irina Brook, director. Photograph: Amanda Lane.)

She grew up in an artistic dynasty and was once rejected for a part by her dad. Now the director is turning her life into an epic new project. She reflects on Chekhov, Shakespeare and Iggy Pop

What are memories? Stories we tell ourselves? Do they occupy neatly filed compartments in the brain? Perhaps – as Cicero and others argued – memory is a sort of palace or theatre: an atmospheric space filled with objects pregnant with meaning, or a realist stage set on which figures are forever materialising and disappearing.

Inside a swaggering 18th-century palazzo in Palermo, Irina Brook is trying to find answers to these questions – at least some of them. The project is entitled The House of Us. Three years in the planning and writing, the first piece she has created from scratch, it is a melange of autobiographical installations, photographs, video, music and theatrical performance. The audience will wander through it all, trespassers in Brook’s memory.

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JOE KINNISON’S IMPROV—THE WRITER AND ANGLER ON HIS NEW HOW-TO BOOK: ‘NEXT-LEVEL BASS FISHING’–FROM SKYHORSE ·

JOE KINNISON is on the hook for our latest interview, talking with SV’s Bob Shuman about getting started in bass fishing, enjoying the peace, beauty, and intellectual challenge of the sport, and sharing insights from the world’s top Bassmaster anglers:  Christiana Bradley, Tyler Carriere, Destin Demarion, Pam Martin-Wells, and Brandon Palaniuk. 

 

Joe Kinnison “sincerely promotes fishing for everyone.” His previous book is Oh’Fish-Al Innsbrook Fishing Guide, on fishing technique tailored to a lake resort community in Eastern Missouri. Joe is an officer in a St. Louis fishing club, and he has several bass tournament wins. He is also a member of the Missouri Writers Guild and the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SOEPA). 

 

What did you hook your first fish with—and what are your first memories of fishing?

When I was in primary school, my parents bought a small farm. The farm was all of the way at the end of a miles long gravel road. A small neighborhood organization took up a collection to maintain the road, along with a well that served water to the community. The well was a short walk up the road from our site, and a roughly two acre, kidney-bean-shaped pond was just downhill from the well on common ground. The pond was difficult to approach. It was surrounded by weeds and generally not well kept. Still, we decided to try fishing in the pond one summer day. After trampling enough weeds to get to the water’s edge, we baited hooks with bobbers and worms and started casting. In what seemed like no time, we were reeling in bass, many of which were good size, at least to a kid. Nearly every cast produced a fish, and I remember getting worn out, more than feeling that we’d caught all we could.

What kind of bait do you use today?

I use artificial baits today, and I change baits depending on the forage of the lake and the season of the year. I have had some of my best fishing days, in terms of volume, fishing a lipless crankbait. A lipless crankbait is a fairly heavy lure which is shaped like a fish. The fishing line ties to about the center of the fish’s back which makes the lure wiggle as it moves. A lipless crankbait can be cast a long distance, and the lure is retrieved at a regular rate. I use the lure to cover flats, which are large, shallow sections of lakes. I have had some of my most prolific fishing days dragging a lipless crankbait up the deep edge of a flat and long distances over the submerged surface of the flat. When the fish bite this moving lure, they tend to bite hard. The long length of fishing line from the long cast gives the hooked fish room run, and surge, and jump.

How has your technique changed over the years—and what crucial insight did you have about it?

When I moved to St. Louis, I started getting together with a small group of anglers. We jokingly called ourselves the Bassin’ Assassins. About once a month, we would travel to a group of ponds on a friend’s farm. We were not a very experienced group, but the ponds were seldom fished. These bass would bite almost anything. I started by throwing an inline spinner, which is really more of a trout lure than a bass lure. The bass bit it anyway. Since the ponds were a forgiving environment for an up-and-coming angler, I started experimenting. What I learned is that I preferred to fish slow, rather than just rip baits along a path and try for a reaction strike. I liked making the bait appear natural and move like a real crayfish or a worm. I later learned that this style of mimicking prey is called finesse fishing. Finesse fishing is the method I most prefer. It is slower, it gives a good feel for the fish, and being able to tempt a fish with what it believes is actual food is rewarding.

Why do you think people give up on fishing—and is there a way to keep them going with the sport?

I have met many people who like catching, but don’t necessarily like fishing. I think most people get excited to have a fish on the line. They get to steer the fish, reel it in, control it, and grab its lip. Although that’s the excitement of the sport, catching does not always happen. Moreover, sometimes when it does happen, the fish do not fight, or they are too small to be challenging. During most fishing trips, there is a period of time when the fish are not biting. Those are the times when most people give up on fishing, finding it boring. Those that stick with the sport seem to be the anglers that start seeking solutions when the fishing is idle. They start changing lures, alternating retrieve cadences, or switching colors. They start to notice changes in water color or wind direction or sun angle. Those that begin to understand the natural elements that impact the catching. These are the ones that keep going with the sport. I think the best way to learn the types of things that matter to fishing success is to spend time on the water with someone who loves fishing, not catching.

You interviewed five professional anglers, affiliated with Bassmaster for this book—were there any commonalities to their experience and stories?  Are most people who fish helpful to the newcomer?

Fishing is a welcoming community, especially to kids. In my experience, anglers are like golfers, in that they are happy to recount the elements that led up to their par, what club, what distance, what line, and so on.  For anglers, it may be what reels and cranks, what location, or what technique. While some anglers protect their secrets, most are quite open in sharing their experiences. As for the professionals, the most common element of their stories is that they each had a mentor. Be it a grandfather, brother, or family friend, each angler had a generous fishing enthusiast take them under their arm and give them experiences on the water. Although fishing is the second most popular outdoor sport, fishing can seem to be a small and not mainstream community. Really, it’s not. You just need to find a friend.

What does a fisherperson do during the off-season?

The off-season for professional fishing may not be what you think, the off-season is actually in the fall. Professional tours start as early as February, and the season ends in July. While that is the professional ranks, I make the point in my book that I am far from a professional caliber angler. For me, the off season is what you might expect, winter. I live in the Midwest, and I am not a big fan of cold. Some of my peers travel to Arkansas each year to fish for trout in the Ozark mountain streams. Personally, I like the heartiness and the fight of bass, so I stick with that type of fishing. I give my boat a good cleaning about Thanksgiving time, and I park it until the Easter season. I spend the winter reading and writing.

Please discuss the issue of releasing fish after they are caught. Why would or wouldn’t you do this—is it ever required?

Choosing to either keep or release a bass is a thorny issue, and there are passionate opinions on both sides. Large and smallmouth bass are not good eating fish. They are edible, but they would not be a first choice among diners. As such, keeping these fish for food is not the norm. For most of my fishing tenure, catch-and-release has been the preferred method. Recently, however, lake management views have been changing. Bass tend to be the apex predators in most lakes. With few adversaries, the fish tend to overpopulate. When a bass population gets too large, sufficient food is not present to support all of those fish. The fish tend to grow to approximately the same size and compete for what nourishment is available. These fish tend to thin. The industry calls such fish stunted. The bulk of the fish population of a lake can be unhealthy, starving. Some of the new thinking is that small bass should be removed from lakes and rivers to try to prevent the stunting problem. With small bass being particularly hard to prepare as food, the question becomes what to do with them. Dead fish are better used for garden fertilizer or even left on the bank to feed birds and raccoons. Some animal rights people believe that culling small fish is inhumane. Other animal rights people believe that starving a population of fish is inhumane. There are good arguments on both sides. I am a believer that catch-and-keep is the best policy.

What is fish body language and how does knowing about it help when fishing?

Even experienced anglers generally do not know that largemouth bass can change color. The fish have the ability to express the green and black pigments in their skin, or they can mask those pigments. It would not be unusual to catch really green-looking bass on one trip, and then catch really white-looking bass on another trip on the same lake. Coloration depends on how deep the bass are swimming and how much vegetation is in the water. Bass express their pigments when they are in the weeds. The green shades make them harder to find. The suppress their pigments when they are in deep or open water. More whiteness makes them harder to see by other fish looking from the bottom toward the surface. The pigment provides information to the angler. If you reel in a white-ish bass, it does not mean the animal is unhealthy. Instead, it means the animal came from a deep, suspended position to bite the lure. In that way, the coloration of the bass tells you at what depth the fish are feeding. This is valuable information for the angler.

How would this book have been written if you worked on it ten years ago—what has changed in the field?

I do not think this book could have been written a decade ago. Like many pursuits, fishing has undergone tremendous technological change in the last ten years. In that period of time, the industry has developed high resolution sonar equipment, invisible fishing lines, and previously unheard of lure presentations like umbrella rigs. Due to the improvements in the technology, most anglers have been focused on trying new gear. The new gear has been effective in improving catch rates, especially for offshore fish. As the technology has been assimilated, in my experience, questions remained unanswered. For example, if we both have all of the greatest gear, what makes an angler on the Bassmaster Elite tour different from me? In looking for that explanation, it became clear to me that soft skills separate anglers who already possess the latest technology. It really comes back to the human elements to determine success. Mentorship is a factor. It is also sensory skills, creativity, and organization that make the true difference.

What do you discuss in the book that isn’t typically covered in fishing books?

This may sound mundane, but one of the things that I discuss is how to get on the water. Some of the nation’s best fishing lakes are overwhelmingly large. It can be a difficult problem just to get started, and no one tells you that perspective. I point readers to where to launch their boat, where to get a guide, where to stay overnight, and where to grab dinner. Such practical things are often omitted in fishing books. Beyond the practical, few other fishing books will inform readers about things like sensory training and improvisation techniques.

How long does it take, on average, for someone to feel confident in fishing?

Getting confident in fishing can take a while. I cannot really identify a precise timetable, but I would say about five years will not be far off. As with any sport, some people have a natural gift for fishing. They may be particularly aware of nature or unusually observant. These folks usually start fast. For the fast starters as for the rest of us, eventually the angler will have an outing where they catch nothing. A reliable bait does not work or no fish reside in a confident “honey hole.” At these times, whatever confidence the beginning angler has fails. What restores confidence is going back out on the water and trying different lures, different techniques, and different locations until one finds and catches the fish. Having to adapt to different conditions and different quirks is what ultimately makes a successful angler. One would have to have experienced several shut-out situations before becoming assured that success could be achieved under most  fishing conditions.  Personally, going onto a lake knowing that I can effectively fish crankbaits, or spinnerbaits, or soft plastics, or swimbaits is what ultimately gave me confidence. That and being able to consistently out-fish my brother-in-law.

Do you honestly believe that both sensory training and improv training really make a difference to an angler?

Both of these disciplines sound “new agey,” and “fluffy,” as in not tangible. I refer people to a scientific study of a baseball team that employed sensory techniques. The results were measurable. In the book, I tried to translate some of the sensory training ideas to outdoors pursuits. I have tried these sensory exercises, and I believe that they have helped my fishing. My most memorable response to suggestions for sensory training was an angry one. A very experienced angler chastised me for trying to teach people what for him was just being “in the zone.” I guess he had some natural abilities, and he was upset that I was teaching people how to make the best of their lesser gifts. Improv is also a tentative conversation for most anglers. People seem to think that I’m trying to get them to try out for Second City Comedy or something of that ilk. No, I’m trying to provide permission and instill a process for experimentation. Sometimes just knowing it’s okay to cast a jig with a purple streamer or a crankbait with a worm weight ahead of it on the line is acceptable as long as it is purposeful.

You really make the sport sound approachable and fun.  How were you able to do that?

Two teachers in particular had an influence on my life. A high school English teacher was a fiend for economy of language. Second, a college professor once lowered a grade on a paper saying that I turned in ten pages because I did not have time to write eight pages. He wanted editing and economy. I brought those sentiments into my professional life, and I became a big advocate for clarity and simplicity. I believe that writing in that fashion makes most topics approachable.

Fishing can get really complex, and the industry is heavy on jargon. I have heard professional anglers take more than a full minute just to tell you the details of their rod, reel, line, and lure combination. I do not think it needs to be that complicated. One of the things that I really liked about the anglers that I worked with is that they too kept it simple. For example, one only used two lure colors, among the hundreds of choices. If the pros can reduce the options to two, so can weekend anglers.

Finally, fishing is fun. Something about the man versus beast situation is primal. Fishing is a rite of passage. Getting proficient at fishing is really just calling upon skills you use in other areas of your life and channeling them productively into this particular pursuit. Most people have the life skills that enable at least some measure of success at fishing. I am hoping to draw these out of people so that they enjoy the peace, beauty, majesty, and intellectual challenge of the sport as I do.

Thanks so much, Joe, for talking with Stage Voices.

View Next-Level Bass Fishing at AMAZON

Photo permissions (from top): Skyhorse; Joe Kinnison; Tyler Carriere 

(c) 2021 by Joe Kinnison (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

JULIET STEVENSON: ‘MY AGENT SAID: GO TO HOLLYWOOD. I THOUGHT: I JUST CAN’T DO THIS SH*T’ ·

(Donald Clarke’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 8/21. Photo: Juliet Stevenson: ‘The union was a big part of our lives. It seems absurd for a bunch of actors to be talking about the revolution. But we did that then.’)

She comes to Galway next month (kind of) in an adaptation of José Saramago’s Blindness

Juliet Stevenson has been a force in British acting for more than four decades. She landed at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in the late 1970s and, after a short period of spear carrying, triumphed as Isabella in Measure for Measure, Rosalind in As You Like It and Madame de Tourvel in the company’s legendary production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She was scientist Rosalind Franklin in the BBC’s terrific Life Story from 1987. We could go on.

For a brief moment there was, however, a possibility that she could have become something else. Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly Deeply, in which she played a cellist communing supernaturally with her late husband, was a critical and financial hit in 1990. 

“My agent said: ‘you have got to go to Hollywood’,” she says. “ ‘Go for the big stuff.’ I absolutely couldn’t manage that. I just didn’t feel that was my element at all. I thought: ‘I just can’t do this sh*t – schmoozing, swimming pools, wandering into casting directors’ offices? It is not my thing’.”

Rodeo Drive’s loss was Shaftesbury Avenue’s gain. She continued to boss the West End. She is immovable from high-end television. And now she is available to light up the Galway International Arts Festival in Simon Stephens’s adaptation of José Saramago’s novel Blindness. Or is she? Premiered last August in London’s Donmar Warehouse, the show, a timely tale of a pandemic, makes use of the actor’s recorded voice. The audience sit in spookily lit, isolated positions and listen as an unseen Stevenson, preserved in a binaural sound, drifts around them.

“No, I won’t be there,” she says. “I would give my eye teeth to be in Galway. I love it – one of my favourite places on earth, but no. I’m not saying this because I’m selling the show to you, but, when I went to it, I thought: ‘well, this is not going to be very immersive’. But lots of my mates said to me: ‘I honestly thought you were at the show because you knew I was coming today – that you decided to do it live.’ They felt that.”

Recorded on complex microphones shaped to emulate the human head, the sound replicates the experience of a source moving left, right, above and below. But does this still counts as live theatre. Stevens, the hugely prolific theatre maker best known for his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has thought deeply about this.

But the assembling of strangers in one place for a shared experience is also a vital part

“I think it’s a fair question,” he says. “You know there was a time when we used semantics to suggest the opposite. Ha ha! When it was really clear that no piece of live theatre was legal in London. ‘It’s not theatre!’ It raises quite interesting philosophical questions. The form is predicated on two elements. One of the elements I think is inarguably missing: the live presence of a performer. I think it would be disingenuous to lie about that. But the assembling of strangers in one place for a shared experience is also a vital part.”

It must have been strange attending the show last summer. The uncertainty and unease were that bit greater than they are today.

“Sitting in the space with people I’d never met before, experiencing this piece together was as theatrical an experience as I’ve ever had,” he says. “In that sense I would strongly argue that there’s much which is very theatrical about this.”

Saramago’s 1995 novel concerns a city afflicted by an inexplicable epidemic of blindness. Stevenson’s character is spared and is thus able to talk us through the near-total breakdown of society. Noting that this is a “testimony of a survivor”, Stephens argues we are dealing with an optimistic text. Really? There are some grim messages here. At any rate, it feels like the ideal project for the pandemic years. And yet . . .

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PHYLLIS WHEELER SHINES A LIGHT ON HER TEEN NOVEL: ‘THE LONG SHADOW,’ FROM ELK LAKE PUBLISHING, INC. (INTERVIEW) ·

In her second interview for Stage Voices, Phyllis Wheeler talks race in America, during three different time periods; stranger danger and comfort zones; and walking a mile–in someone else’s shoes.

Author Phyllis Wheeler tells stories that encourage us to step outside our comfort zones. She’s done it—she and her husband spent twenty years raising their family in a black neighborhood in segregated St. Louis. She’s been a journalist, an engineer, and a homeschooling mom. Now she’s thrilled to be following her dream of becoming an author for young people. Find out more and get a free short story at phylliswheeler.com .

View The Long Shadow on Amazon

Visit Elk Lake Publishing, Inc.  

 

Photo by Arpit Mehta

Without giving too much away, tell us about your novel.

The Long Shadow is a racial reconciliation novel featuring time travel. Fourteen-year-old Richie, from white suburbia, thinks it is a good idea to run away from his guardian – until he finds himself whisked back 50 years, fighting to survive a freak storm, afraid to accept help from a black man.

As Morris mentors him in woodsman skills, a friendship develops. Richie wants to repay his life-debt to Morris and embarks on another trip in time, to 1923 in Missouri.  Can he prevent the lynching of Morris’s grandfather?

Why do you think The Long Shadow stands out in the youth market?

First of all, it’s on the topic of our times, racial reconciliation. Many people want to know more. Secondly, it faces a hitherto-taboo topic head-on. That topic is lynching. Our nation’s sad history of lynching and terrorism against Black people has been ignored or avoided in the past, but it’s high time we pulled it out and dealt with it, in my opinion. Thirdly, the book carries an emotional punch that’s unusual in middle grade fiction.

What seems to be important in writing for young readers (ages 10-14)?

  • Young people find role models when they read, so it’s important to have characters in your story readers want to emulate.
  • Personally I think a happy or mostly happy ending is important. Who wants to read a book and get depressed by it?
  • Beyond that, kids are looking for the same story elements as everyone else: relatable characters, strong plots that keep moving, a satisfying resolution.

All ages might notice your ability with structuring the novel, which takes place in three different times.  Why did you think you could make that work–and, for writers, how do you think and work with structure?

I worked with the basic three-act structure for starters, and then added a sub plot that has its own three act structure. I guess I thought I could make it work because I got positive responses from people who read the manuscript.

More details, if you are interested:

There’s a story setup in Act 1, present day. At the beginning of Act 2, Richie embarks on a journey to find independence, running off to the woods.  Richie eventually realizes he has been sent back fifty years somehow. Act 2 contains various setbacks and consequences as Richie, in the woods in 1969, interacts with a person of a different race, Morris, whom he fears. They begin to build a friendship.  Richie urges Morris to return to his family in town, but Morris has fears related to his grandfather’s lynching. And now the sub plot: Richie takes off for 1923 to try to prevent the lynching. That story contains three acts as well. After that sub plot finishes, we return to the main story, coming to resolution in 1969 and then the present day.

What kinds of research did the book involve?

I set the present-day sequences in Webster Groves, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where I live, so researching that was easy. The 1969 sequences were mostly set in a wooded area of my state where my husband and I have spent a lot of time, near Farmington, Missouri.  And, in 1969, I was 17 years old. I remember it so clearly. So the part I had to research was 1923 in Columbia, Missouri. I dramatized an actual lynching, that of James T. Scott. This took several days of research in libraries in Columbia.

Now, Columbia happens to be the home of a big university: Mizzou, the University of Missouri.  This had two beneficial effects for me:

  • Grad students over the years analyzed the town history, including Jason Jindrich in 2002 researching how Black people lived in Columbia in the 1920s.
  • Mizzou journalism school student journalist Charles Nutter was present at the mob scene and wrote extensive eyewitness reports.

If the lynching had been in a different town, I wouldn’t have had these resources. I chose that lynching to base my story on not because of that, though. It was simply the most recent one in Missouri on record at the time I checked, and I needed a recent one in order to make the time line work.

The Long Shadow has characters of different races.  As a white writer, what are the traps and issues you faced not being limited by only working with your own race? 

Because I’ve had so many Black friends and neighbors, I think I can walk a mile in their shoes, but I really can’t, I have discovered. I learned to lean heavily on feedback from Black people who read my work. They point out where I am off, and I tear things up if needed and fix it. It’s a humbling experience.

As a homeschooling parent, in the past, what kinds of learning materials did you look for–and how would you envision The Long Shadow being used in homeschooling and schools?

When homeschooling, I looked for materials that I could hand my students and they could do on their own. So I am working on a homeschool “unit study” of at least 20 pages that will serve as a literature study, covering some Missouri history and geography, learning to write haiku, and more. I’m going to put it up on my website at PhyllisWheeler.com/the-long-shadow .

For regular schools, I also have some free classroom discussion questions available. This book should generate some deep discussions on the topic of racism.

What is racism? In my mind, it comes from fear. We are all wired for stranger danger. So we all need to be aware of the negative aspects of that and be willing to reach out, reach beyond our comfort zones.

What did you find yourself learning, as you wrote? 

I learned a lot about the sordid history of the treatment of Black people in Missouri. I was shocked to discover that after emancipation their settlements were sometimes relegated to edges of creeks, which flooded, and without proper sewers, so the water was contaminated.  This happened both in Columbia and in the St. Louis suburb where I live. Even in the nicer Black neighborhoods, there was no paving or street lights.

I also did some introspection about my feelings on the subject of race and racism. That was an eye opener too.

Because of its setting, are you finding Missouri is becoming key to your sales?  To what extent do you think this is a national or international book and why?

Local Missourians seem very interested in a racial reconciliation book, and it’s selling well here. But it’s also doing well online. I believe the book speaks to anyone who has experienced a segregated environment. That’s a lot of people! It’s not just a kids’ book. I am finding that adults are reading the book and recommending it to each other. The reconciliation theme can speak into our divided culture.

How do you think your personal experience prepared you to write this novel?

I lived as a child in Jim Crow Mississippi. There were laws about segregation. There were whites-only bathrooms and water fountains. The schools were separate. The only time I saw Black people was in a store—and in my home. My mother hired a maid to clean our house once a week. The maid lived in a row of shacks just a stone’s throw from our middle class house in a subdivision. Those shacks must have had no plumbing and just some kind of stove for heat. They were primitive. The contrast was so great in my young eyes.

As I grew up I lived in many places. In St. Louis I got married, and we decided to raise our family in a Black neighborhood. We had some wonderful, welcoming neighbors who showed us the warm heart of the Black community, which most white people in St. Louis never see.

View The Long Shadow on Amazon

More about The Long Shadow:

Part survival story, part exploration of racial justice in America, part journey of self-discovery, and wholly engaging and memorable. A well done and powerful story. It is certainly stuck in my head.—Joe Corbett, school librarian, St. Louis

I loved this book. I could not stop reading it once I had begun. It is a delightful story, as well as a very painful one, told very well without a wasted word. I gladly recommend it to anyone. —Jerram Barrs, professor at Covenant Theological Seminary and author of Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts

I’ve read this book and enjoyed the characters in the story. I like the friendship that blossomed in the story and how the story came full circle in the end. It was a good history lesson without being offensive to anyone.—LaShaunda Hoffman, sensitivity reader and author

Searching for a new favorite book? Look no further than The Long Shadow by Phyllis Wheeler. Richie grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the very end.—Elsie G, age 13.

Aunt Trudy never wanted kids. Now that she’s Richie’s guardian, she makes his life miserable. Richie just wants to escape, so he seeks refuge in the deep Missouri woods he loves so much.

Suddenly it’s not summer, but late fall. How did that happen? Did the trucker who just gave him a ride somehow whisk him back fifty years in time?

The woods aren’t for Richie the haven they used to be. After a freak storm, he finds himself at the mercy of Morris, a mysterious black man who also calls the woods home. Is Morris a savior? Or someone to fear?

 

ROBERT DWYER & AUSTIN WRIGHT’S ACE IN THE HOLE: “THE SHERIFF” FROM TWODOT BOOKS (INTERVIEW, Part 1) ·

Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright posse up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about big ideas, big landscapes, and tackling the biggest questions–like what it means to be human.

Robert Dwyer is a history buff with an abiding interest in the West, which looms large in the American psyche–a canvas for big stories and big ideas. He lives with his wife and dog in Alexandria, Virginia.

Austin Wright started watching John Wayne movies with his dad before he was old enough to talk–and he’s been hooked on Westerns ever since. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Annandale, Virginia.

“Has a chance to be judged one of those rare modern Western–fiction classics.”—Jeff Guinn, New York Times best-selling author

(Photos, from top: Austin Wright and Robert Dwyer.)

For both of you, name your favorite sheriff, besides your own character, from books or film (or both).  Why do you like him or her best?

Rob: Ed Tom Bell of No Country for Old Men, both the book and the movie. It’s one of my favorite stories—I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers—and I’m riveted by Bell’s pathos as he confronts this new violence in the modern west. He embodies that clash between an idealized western past and a modern western reality. Even though The Sheriff is set eight decades earlier, I think it still grapples with some of those same questions of change. Along with Bell we wonder: Has the modern age become worse, more violent? Or has it always been so?

Austin: My four-year-old son is obsessed with Toy Story, so lately my favorite has been Sheriff Woody. But every time I revisit the Lonesome Dove miniseries, I am deeply moved by Chris Cooper’s portrayal of Sheriff July Johnson. He’s a rather pathetic man who nonetheless wins me over for his plodding commitment to goodness even as his personal life implodes for reasons understood by the viewer but beyond his comprehension. I’m fascinated by Larry McMurtry’s decision to include Johnson as a major character—such a wonderful foil to the supremely competent Gus and Call, the buddies at the heart of the greatest buddy story ever told.

Why do you think people are drawn to read Westerns and does anything  about the genre need to be corrected for today?  What are the issues involved with writing a Western—and how did you approach and resolve them?

The Western is an ideal canvas for big stories. It shows mankind unfettered, inhabiting a land where the big machines of government and society are stripped away, and what’s left are those primordial struggles: man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. himself. Even the landscape itself is expressive of this—the barren desert, the endless plain. In a certain way the Western genre is like the fantasy genre in that the landscape becomes a character, expressive of mood. We also think the long relationship between Westerns and movies lends a cinematic feel to these stories, which only enhances the effect.

The biggest issue with the Western is popular perception—that the genre is archaic, and socially problematic. And, certainly, it can be. But there are great stories and storytellers in the Western’s past and present. We tried to tell a story that’s more inclusive, that presents a wide array of characters without making inclusion the only aim of the story. We think that’s the trick—modernizing the Western without making it about something else, without making it political.

What interested you about writing  a Western—why did you choose to write one?

As a kid, Austin’s favorite John Wayne movie was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and when we revisited the film as adults, it made clear to us how effectively the small frontier town could function as a microcosm to deal with larger, societal themes. We wanted to do that, but with more modern themes that wouldn’t have been as apparent in the Westerns of the 1960s. Our goal was to write a novel that paid loving homage to the Westerns we cherished as kids, while also recognizing the failures of these stories and modernizing the genre for a new era.

Tell us about your novel.

Our first draft centered around one character, Sheriff John Donovan, clinging to power over the town he views as his, unwilling to pass the torch to a new generation, even as cancer consumes his body. Our idea was to take the quintessential Western hero, the lawman, and imbue him with moral ambiguity so the reader is constantly unsure whether he’s good or bad. (We felt it would be cowardly to raise this question in the reader’s mind without answering it ourselves—so we do, eventually, reveal the color of Donovan’s hat…)

At the time we started planning our second draft, we were both into the Game of Thrones books, with their sprawling cast of characters. We thought how cool it would be to fill out our own story with more point-of-view characters, each a subversive take on a stereotypical Western archetype. Kat is a prostitute with a heart of steel rather than gold. Jack is a fearsome, half-Comanche outlaw who seeks not riches but to right historical wrongs. Annabel is a schoolmarm who, rather than pine after our protagonist, rejects him to seize control over her own story. We try to give each of these characters their own inner lives and ambitions—and, for most of them, a gun at their hips. And then we nudge them toward a series of indomitable clashes of will, much like the duels at the end of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western.

You have known each other for a good part of your lives—where did you meet and how long have you known each other?

We met in 2001 as high schoolers in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. That year, our school system launched a program to equip every student with a laptop. We both aspired to write novels, and we quickly put our slick new iBooks to work writing stories in class when we should have been taking notes. We would email our stories back and forth—and then, without really ever asking, we started expanding on each other’s work. It became clear almost immediately we brought complementary skills to the writing process, and a natural partnership formed.

In the intervening years, we’ve written several complete novels and screenplays—plus more than a dozen aborted projects—some of which are cringeworthy in retrospect, and none of which will ever see the light of day. It wasn’t until The Sheriff, which we started in 2013, that we felt we were writing something worthy of publication.

Discuss your working methods—do you find that you both write in the same way?  What tips might you give to other writers to help them with their own work?

Austin does more of the plotting and focuses on the big picture. Rob is more focused on making sure individual scenes are packed with tension and reveal something interesting about the characters. We’d like to believe this has led to a novel that works on both a micro and macro level—a series of memorable moments that add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

As far as tips for writers, worry about process over payoff. Writer’s block creeps in when you start thinking about the finished house instead of how to lay the next brick. This is as much an admonition to ourselves as to anyone else.

What exactly can a Western give a reader besides escapism? 

Westerns are inherently allegorical. The horse is freedom of movement; the gun the right to exert one’s will, to self-actualize; the town a microcosm of society. The west means something different to everyone; it’s an idea, an idealized setting. It offers a means for writers to ask fundamental questions about morality, freedom, human nature, and purpose. We think fantasy and sci-fi are similar in this way. Sure, a story about space and future technology is inherently escapist, but it allows authors to tackle the biggest questions, like what it means to be human, in a way that would be harder in a more conventional setting.

Thank you, Rob & Austin.  We’ll look forward to more next week.

View  The Sheriff on Amazon.

The second part of this interview will be available 4/9.

(c) 2021 by Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright  (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.

Cover photo: TwoDot.

LIV ULLMANN LIFE LESSONS: NEVER TURN AWAY, NEVER KILL SOMEBODY’S DREAM ·

(Tim Gray’s interview appeared in Variety, 3/1.)

Liv Ullmann has been an international star since 1966’s Ingmar Bergman’s arthouse hit “Persona”; indeed, she is best-known for her collaborations with Bergman, acting in 10 of his films, and directing two of his screenplays; he was also the father of her daughter, author Lin Ullmann. But there’s more to her than that: She’s written two books, “Changing” (1976) and “Choices” (1979), and, more important, her activism.

Ullmann talked to Variety about acting in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” in Norway early in her career. In a war-torn area, her character discovers an abandoned baby. The director gave her advice valuable both in acting and in life: See things from both sides, and don’t turn away. Her life was changed with another production, the musical “I Remember Mama,” when Broadway shows raised funds for Cambodian refugees in 1979. The lesson then was similar: Don’t turn away.

‘This doesn’t apply to those who have nothing.’

When I was 6, my father died. There was the feeling of emptiness, but also I had a lot of dreams and fantasies that he was there; when I started in theater at 17, he was seated up in the balcony watching me. A crisis may lead you to good things, because with your memories of that crisis, you can turn it into something positive. But this only applies to those of us who are privileged enough to have choices. This doesn’t apply to those who have nothing, which is maybe most of the world. Because for them, a crisis — even before you are 10 years old — may be just one of many.

‘OK, that’s enough’

When I was 17, I auditioned for the theater school in Norway. I was performing Juliet when she hears that Romeo is dead and drinks poison. I thought I was so splendid. There were six jury members, and when I was drinking the poison, I heard one voice say “OK, that’s enough.” That was so terrible. It taught me that in life, you must never kill somebody’s dream. I’m sure I was dreadful, but they could have let me die in the way I rehearsed. That was a crisis but it became good because I then went to provincial theater — and nobody interrupted me! I haven’t gone to any auditions since then. When I met Ingmar Bergman and got the script of “Persona,” I had been an actor for eight years and he had seen me in several films. Nobody ever asked me to audition, and I have never asked anyone to audition either. When I directed “Miss Julie,” I didn’t audition Jessica Chastain. The way she talked, I knew she understood Miss Julie.

‘Don’t turn away’

When people ask me about mentors, it would be natural to say Ingmar Bergman; yes, he was a mentor, but not the only one. Peter Palitzsch was my first mentor. He showed me what it means to be an actress. It’s not about yourself. I loved Peter; he made me see things from both sides. In the play [“Caucasian Chalk Circle”], he said don’t be a hero, show that you’re scared, show that you maybe try to run away, but you come back for the baby. He was from Berlin and came many times to Norway, where we did many plays together. He showed me what suffering is like. I always try to follow what he said: “Don’t turn away.”

Other mentors include theater director José Quintero, who made O’Neill really come to life again; Jan Troell, who did “The Emigrants” [for which Ullmann earned an Oscar nomination]; and Richard Rodgers. I’m not a musical star and I almost ruined his last work, “I Remember Mama,” but he never let me know; he would come in every day and say “This is wonderful, we’re in this together.” And Arthur Cohn, who’s won a lot of Oscars with his documentaries. He has a heart full of love. These people — and strangely, only men, I don’t know why, because women are so strong together — have been mentors because they have been so human.

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FRANCE: CULTURE VS COVID: A FINAL CURTAIN CALL FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS? INTERVIEWS WITH BASIL TWIST AND MARION SIEFERT ·

(Olivia Salazar-Winspear’s interviews appeared 2/19 on France24.)

As part of France24’s week-long series about how the arts are dealing with Covid-19, we take a look at the impact of the health crisis on theatre, dance and opera. Playwright and director Marion Siefert joins us in the studio to talk about how the “stop-start” measures of 2020 affected her productions. She also explains how her latest play “Jeanne Dark” has successfully made the shift into the virtual space, with performances streamed live on Instagram.

We then discuss the upcoming restrictions on crowd sizes and social distancing at festivals, and how they will affect young artists and smaller institutions.

And we check in with American puppeteer Basil Twist, who managed to stage a full-scale production of “Titon et L’Aurore” at the Opéra Comique in Paris, despite the absence of a live audience.

Go to France24

JUDI DENCH: ‘IN MY MIND’S EYE I’M SIX FOOT AND WILLOWY’ ·

 (Xan Brooks’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/22; Photo: The Guardian; via Pam Green.)

At 86 and in lockdown, the actor finds herself in the rare position of not working. Instead, she talks about theatrical ghosts, her friendship with Harvey Weinstein and definitely not being a national treasure

It’s all go for Judi Dench, stuck at her house in deepest Surrey. What a freewheeling week; she is beside herself with excitement. Yesterday, she explains, she received her Covid vaccine. This required a trip to the village and was the first time she had left home since she can’t remember when. Then today it’s a phone interview, the thing she is doing right now. Her cup runneth over. Her world has turned Technicolor. “I’m not even joking,” she says with a sigh. “It’s nice to actually have something to do.”

Lockdown, I fear, is not the life Dench was born to. She used to practically eat and drink on the stage, but the theatres have closed, who knows for how long. She used to bounce from one film set to the next, but now production is mothballed and the industry has gone to ground. All of which means that she is confined to the house, an 86-year-old actor shoved into what she hopes is a partial and temporary retirement. She gets up each morning determined to keep herself busy. She crawls back to bed with most of the tasks left undone. After a while, she admits, the time starts to drag.

Dench recently learned a new word: synesthesia. “And I thought; ‘Well, that’s me.’ Because I always saw the days of the week in colour. I never gave it a second thought, it’s just how my mind works. And all of a sudden it’s not there any more. The days of the week have no colour at all. There’s no structure, no planning.” She is marooned with her memories and mementoes and various unquiet ghosts.

As luck would have it, her most recent film similarly throws her in among ghosts – although here, again, the experience soon starts to grate. Blithe Spirit is a galumphing reanimation of Noël Coward’s 1940s farce, played with gusto but fatally heavy-footed. Dench co-stars as Madame Arcati, a preposterous old medium who was previously embodied by the likes of Margaret Rutherford and Angela Lansbury. Down the years we have grown accustomed to seeing Dench making herself blissfully at home in any film, big or small, but her role as Arcati feels like so much heavy lifting. She huffs and she puffs. She falls into the orchestra pit. If the film is a notch or two up on 2019’s calamitous Cats (in which she played Old Deuteronomy), it is still a far cry from the heyday of Philomena, or Notes on a Scandal. Blithe Spirit is running on vapour, shouting to be heard. In the end it is a bit of a ghostly presence itself.

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TIM RICE: ‘EVITA WAS A BONKERS IDEA’ ·

(Rob Walker’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/14; Photo: Dynamic duo … Tim Rice, right, and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images.)

As the great songwriter prepares to take Jesus Christ Superstar on a 50th birthday tour, he talks about penning hits, his idea for a new musical – and drinking from Lloyd Webber’s Georgian wine glasses

 Tim Rice had a hunch the Oscar was in the bag. After all, he and Elton John had been responsible for three of the five nominations in the best song category. But, as he walked on stage that night in 1995, after Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King won, the tall, slightly awkward-looking English lyricist had no idea what he was going to say. So he drew a breath then decided, on a whim, to thank his childhood hero, Denis Compton. No one in the Hollywood audience had heard of the England and Middlesex cricketing all-rounder and his words were greeted with a bemused silence.

Rice laughs at the memory and puts on a throaty American drawl to recount the scene back stage when reporters swarmed. “What movies was this guy Compton in?” “Oh, I said, he was in The Final Test.” “But what part did he play?” “Well, he played Denis Compton – and frankly, I thought he captured the character very well.”

He chortles away, still roguish at 76 and ever the raconteur. But then Rice is at his best telling stories. They’re the key to his craft. “A good story always inspires good words,” he says. And, over the past six decades, Rice has written some very good words for the biggest names in music, from Freddie Mercury to Madonna. Mention his name, though, and people are likely to think of him as part of a duo alongside – or even eclipsed by – Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet as a lyricist, Rice has won three Oscars, two more than Lloyd Webber.

Why isn’t he more of a national treasure? “I really don’t like people saying everything is wonderful,” Rice says, when I suggest that he may be a bit too, well, self-effacing for someone with three Academy awards. “I don’t want to completely put myself down – because there’s the frightening possibility that people might agree.” Is there anything he will say? “I think I’m quite good at judging my material, partly because it’s only half mine in most cases.”

He’s speaking to me from his six-acre country home near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, a leafy retreat he moved to three years ago. Outside, the afternoon light’s fading and his dog is impatient for a walk. Rice has spent the day organising all the songs he’s ever written – putting his house in order “in case I get hit by a bus next week”. He’s been struck by how many never appeared in films or shows: 145 in all. Most are pretty average, he says, particularly the early ones. “It’s made me realise just how much a show helps a song.”

I like a perfect rhyme. I don’t like time and mine, or girl and world

None more so than the hit musical Evita. A “bonkers” idea, he says, that came to him after hearing a radio programme about Eva Perón, the glamorous wife of Juan Perón, three times president of Argentina. The show made him drop everything and jump on a plane to Buenos Aires to do some research. “The best stuff I’ve written is when I have characters and I know what situation they’re in – and I think, ‘What would I say in that situation?’”

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BLACK LIVES MATTER IN “TITUS ANDRONICUS” (INTERVIEW WITH DAVID STERLING BROWN) ·

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 155 (Folger Shakespeare Library)

In his classes at Binghamton University, David Sterling Brown and his students examine Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of Critical Race Theory. You might have heard about Critical Race Theory lately: put simply, it’s a way of looking at society and culture that focuses on the intersections of race, law, and power. Ever since George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis outraged much of the nation, Critical Race Theory has taken on a new urgency for millions of Americans examining race, law and power with new eyes. Meanwhile, millions of other Americans, pointing to the realities of their own day-to-day lives, are basically saying: “I told you so.”

What does it mean to read a play like Titus Andronicus with questions of race in mind? Brown, who has written extensively about that play, joins us on the podcast to discuss the ways that such a reading reveals an entire dimension of racial imagery and racial violence. We also talk about what it means for theaters and cultural institutions to engage in anti-racist work. David Sterling Brown is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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