Category Archives: Interviews

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.

(Read more)

 

MICHAEL FRAYN ON THE STATE OF BRITAIN AND THE FUTURE OF THEATRE ·

(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 9/13; Illustration by Grace J. Kim; source photograph by Roberto Ricciuti / Getty.)

A conversation with the playwright and novelist about quarantine, comedy, and Chekhov.

Michael Frayn was born in the suburbs of London, in 1933. He studied philosophy at Cambridge, in the nineteen-fifties, before becoming a reporter and columnist for the Guardian and then a star columnist for the Observer in the sixties—experiences he put to wry use in “Towards the End of the Morning,” a novel about world-weary Fleet Street hacks, published in 1967. He turned to theatre in the seventies, and he may be best known, at least in Britain, as the creator of the imperishable stage farce “Noises Off,” which was first produced in 1982. A decade and a half later, his drama “Copenhagen,” which pried open the mysterious relationship between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the midst of the Second World War, won the Tony Award for Best Play. Another award-winning drama, “Democracy,” from 2003, delved into the muddied compromises of German politics. Frayn’s most recent play, “Afterlife,” is from 2008, and he has hinted it might be his last; it explored the checkered career of the visionary theatre director Max Reinhardt. (Like many of Frayn’s works, it was directed by Michael Blakemore.) He has written a memoir, numerous screenplays and television scripts, and a well-regarded philosophical study on the concept of uncertainty. He has also translated nearly all the plays of Anton Chekhov, among other works of Russian literature.

Despite his irksomely abundant talents, Frayn has an old-fashioned English distrust of over-egging anything, especially himself: in a Profile for this magazine from 2004, Larissa MacFarquhar described him as “optimistic, cheerful, tidy, hardworking, discreet, modest, logically scrupulous, and parsimonious in matters of sentiment.” Frayn told MacFarquhar, “I have a moderate view of life.”

He would have spent this summer doing the rounds of British literary festivals to promote his new book, “Magic Mobile,” a volume of short comic pieces, but he and his wife, the writer Claire Tomalin, with whom he has lived since 1981, are taking lockdown seriously, and venturing out as little as possible. “In a way, it’s nice to be released from all that, and just get on with working and reading,” he told me recently, on a Zoom call of intermittent reliability. He was sitting in his office among neat shelves of dictionaries and play scripts. His three children live close by, and “often come over and sit in the garden or go for walks,” he said.

We went on to talk about the possibilities of socially distanced drama, how laughter has become a health risk, the state of Britain in the wake of the coronavirus, and what Chekhov did during pandemics. Later, we spoke again by Zoom; these interviews have been edited and condensed.

Some theatres in Britain have tried reopening at reduced capacity, but there’s a fear that productions might not get going properly again until next year—assuming theatres even make it through Christmas. Has it affected you?

I have, I think, four revivals in the U.K. scheduled for next year, and they’re all just hanging fire. No one knows whether we’re going to be doing any theatre next year or not. It’s an impossible situation.

There’s something to be said for social distancing on the stage—some directors do a lot of it, because they want to use the whole area of the stage. Things like love scenes are much more effective if you get the lovers apart, on opposite sides of the stage, and make them play to each other across the width of it. I really don’t think we lose very much if all the people who are supposed to have sword fights onstage have to stay well out of bash-bash-bash range of each other.

But you do need to pack audiences in together. It’s just simply not financially viable to have audiences that are a quarter of the size of the audience you’re expecting. Also, the theatre works by having this very close, communal response. Particularly comedy—people do set each other off laughing. To get a comedy going, you really need to be very close to a lot of other people. Of course, when it doesn’t work, that’s even worse—when you’re sitting next to a lot of people who are supposed to be laughing, and they don’t laugh.

And laughter in the theatre suddenly seems to be risky behavior, doesn’t it? All those virus-bearing aerosols.

Normally, people say that laughter is good for you—I like to think I’m dispensing medicine to the public. But if I’m also killing them that’s not so good.

If Zoom could make their system more sophisticated so that everyone in the audience could be represented by an avatar in the theatre, and each avatar could hear the other person, it would be as good as having an audience. But you see the difficulties we’re having even maintaining this conversation with two people. The thought of all the people with avatars being visible and audible, coming back into existence, going out of existence again, would be a very dicey prospect. It’s one of the criticisms that people make of actors sometimes, that they’ve phoned in their performance—but, theoretically, the audience could phone in their responses and that could be broadcast around the empty auditorium.

Theatre architects and technicians are working hard at the moment to try and find solutions that would allow for better audience capacity—I saw a scheme recently for surrounding every seat with plexiglass, so you’d be shielded from your neighbor.

If you’re shut away behind that, you might as well be shut away at home, using Zoom. If it would encourage the actors, you could have lots of little screens, five hundred screens in the house.

Your new book, “Magic Mobile,” is an array of comic miniatures and vignettes, and your previous book, “Matchbox Theatre,” was a series of playlets. Is there something appealing about working on a small scale?

No doubt I have more ideas for short pieces because that’s how I began my career, by writing stuff as a reporter for the Guardian. Then I became a columnist. Maybe I’m just in old age, or second childhood, reverting to where I began.

I’ve been thinking about comedy and the pandemic—obviously, so much of it has been so grim, but in Britain, at least, there’s been a lot of humor, too, partly because so many people think the government has been so incompetent.

I don’t know if it’s a particularly British thing. The British like to feel that they’re the only people in the world who’ve got a sense of humor—and particularly feel that the Germans don’t have a sense of humor. But that doesn’t actually survive going to Germany and meeting Germans. I think everyone in difficult situations tries to laugh about them if they possibly can, don’t they?

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READ ‘REAGAN’S COWBOYS’ ALONG WITH MAUREEN DOWD ARTICLE IN NY TIMES, 8/8 ·

MOB RULE:  JOHN B. ROBERTS II ON THE 1984 REELECTION CAMPAIGN’S SECRET OPERATION AGAINST GERALDINE FERRARO, THINKING OUTSIDE THE BALLOT BOX, AND HIS NEW BOOK  ON MORNING IN AMERICA:  “REAGAN’S COWBOYS”

In the run-up to the 2020 election, Reagan Political Strategist John B. Roberts II looks back at 1984—only  to find a highly controversial president, a terrible economy, and mass protests in the streets.  The parallels go on . . .

Interview with Bob Shuman, Stage Voices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is an issue from the 1984 Reagan campaign that is also important to a millennial–and why?

The economy. Until 1983, America had a terrible economy for a decade. It began with an oil embargo and gas shortages. We waited in long lines to try to fill our cars, at prices that spiked more than 150 percent.  I was a college graduate in 1973.  Jobs were impossible to find, and when you did find them, wages couldn’t keep up with double-digit inflation.  I vividly remember how hard it was to land a job and how it seemed impossible to ever buy a home.  It was really dismal, a lot like it has been for millennials.

Reagan was a highly controversial president, it should be recalled.  There were mass protests in the streets, a difficult economy, Russian interference in elections; the parallels go and on.  For those who do not remember that time, this look backward may reveal that no matter how bad things seem, they can turn around for the better.

Why hasn’t the story of the 1984 reelection campaign’s secret operation against Geraldine Ferraro been told before–and do you think reasons had to do with protecting participants?

By design, only a handful of us knew the full extent of the operation, even when it was happening.  We had lots of people working on the investigations, but they didn’t know everyone who was involved or what people outside of their cluster were doing.  It was a compartmented operation and only I, my colleague Art Teele, and the Reagans’ closest advisor, Stu Spencer, knew the complete story.  In late 1984, an editor at Knopf told me he was interested in publishing a book about the press coverage of the campaigns, which would have included the Ferraro operation.  Stu Spencer asked me not to write it because he thought it might embarrass the Reagans, especially Nancy. So we kept silent for decades.

 

Besides yourself, name the first Reagan Cowboy to come to mind–and who was he or she?

Mac Baldrige.  He was Reagan’s Commerce Secretary and although he was an Ivy Leaguer and successful businessman, he grew up on a ranch and had been a professional roper, a real rodeo cowboy.  In 1988 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.  He and Reagan shared a love of horses and often went riding together.  Baldrige died from injuries in a freak riding accident.  Of course, the second name that comes to mind is Colonel Oliver North, who was a principal in the Iran-Contra affair. He was one of Reagan’s cowboys, whether they went horseback riding or not.   

 

Why was it worth staying with the campaign as you found yourself involved with organized crime?

That’s a really good question.  My mortgage was definitely a factor. But the main thing that kept me on the job was that Reagan declared war on organized crime in 1983.  Attorney General William French Smith ordered U.S. attorneys and the FBI to make the Mafia and other crime groups a top priority.  At the same time Reagan created a high-profile presidential commission to publicly spotlight the dangers.  One question Art Teele and I could never answer was this: was it just a coincidence that a relatively unknown politician with extensive connections to organized crime was picked to run for vice president? Or was the Mafia trying to put someone they could coerce into doing their bidding into the White House?  Because we couldn’t discount that possibility, we stuck with our investigations until the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was defeated.      

 

What do you see as major differences in opposition research then and now?

The dossier of derogatory information British former spy Christopher Steele developed on Trump in 2016 embodies the differences.  Even though the FBI and CIA could not verify the chief allegations in Steele’s dossier, it was used to justify secret surveillance.  The report became part of a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and was shared with the press, senior officials in the intelligence community, and in the Justice Department. Each and every one of those actions would never have happened in 1984, at least not on my watch or on Art Teele’s watch.  They violate every important principle of a democratic election, from abuse of executive authority to potentially introducing Russian propaganda into a presidential campaign.    

We verified the information we uncovered about Geraldine Ferraro before we disclosed it to anyone.  We then required the main news organizations we worked with to independently verify our leads, as a condition of our sharing the information.  We refused to involve Executive Branch agencies in our investigative work, and the one time we found out someone, on our side, had tried to do so, we shut him down.  Without subpoena powers, without court warrants, without FISA court approved eavesdropping, we nonetheless uncovered politically damaging information.  Some of that information led to a congressional investigation, unanimously approved by every Republican and Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, into Geraldine Ferraro’s compliance with the law.  Unlike in recent years, where the Steele dossier’s allegations remain unproven and investigations into Russian collusion have come up empty-handed, the 1984 investigation into Ferraro found numerous violations of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978

The second part of the Stage Voices interview with John B. Roberts II will appear next Tuesday.

Reagan’s Cowboys by John B. Roberts II, available now from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers 

View on Amazon

Visit the Web site of John B. Roberts II

Read Part 2 of this interview

Photos: North, Guardian; Steele, Business Insider

Interview (c) 2020 by John B. Roberts II and Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

MAUREEN DOWD NY TIMES ARTICLE, 8/8

No Wrist Corsages, Please

Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?

Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?

By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — On the cusp of Joe Biden teaming up with a woman, I am casting back to my time covering the first woman who was a serious contender for veep.

The feminist fairy tale — which began with women crying and popping champagne on the convention floor in San Francisco in 1984 — had a sad ending. Cinderella with ashes in her mouth.

It’s hard to fathom, but it took another 36 years for a man to choose to put a woman on the Democratic ticket with him. To use Geraldine Ferraro’s favorite expression, “Gimme a break!”

After Walter Mondale picked Ferraro, a Queens congresswoman, the first man and woman to share a ticket had to consider all sorts of things: Could he kiss her on the cheek? (No.) Could he call her “dear” or “honey”? (No.) Could they hug? (No.) Could they tell jokes, as Johnny Carson did, about how angry Joan Mondale would be when her husband kept coming home late and saying he had been in private sessions with the vice president? (No.)

They wanted to be seen as peers, more TV anchor team than suburban couple. Mondale could not seem paternal or patronizing or use phrases like “a ticket with broad appeal.” Ferraro, who walked faster, had to stop bounding ahead of her running mate.

They knew that the way they conducted themselves would forever recast the perception of men and women in politics. So they were wary in the beginning.

As one Democratic consultant put it at the time, “He looked like a teenager on the first date with that ‘How in the world do you pin the corsage on her?’ problem.’’

Before a fund-raiser in New York once, a Democratic official presented Ferraro with a wrist corsage. She refused to put it on. “That I will not do,’’ she told the man politely.

Sometimes, the introductory music for the petite blonde was the 1925 ditty, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” One magazine hailed her as “America’s Bride.”

When the ticket headed South, Jim Buck Ross, Mississippi’s 70-year-old commissioner of agriculture, called the 48-year-old Ferraro “young lady” and asked if she could bake blueberry muffins.

Ferraro’s historic campaign was full of images never before seen on the presidential trail. As she went onstage, Gerry, as she was universally known, would hand off her pocketbook to an aide. Her charming press spokesman, Francis O’Brien, sometimes ironed her dresses — as her main foreign affairs adviser, Madeleine Albright, looked on.

It was fascinating to see age-old customs through the eyes of a woman candidate.

“People hand me their babies,’’ Ferraro marveled. “As a mother, my instinctive reaction is how do you give your baby to someone who’s a total stranger to kiss, especially with so many colds going around? And especially when the woman is wearing lipstick?”

It was the first time a candidate running for the White House had talked about abortion using the phrase, “If I were pregnant,” and about foreign policy with the phrase, “As the mother of a draft-age son.” The “smartass white boys” around Mondale, as many feminists called them privately, got nervous when she talked about being a mother. How could she be tough and a mother, they wondered, not seeing the obvious: Mothers are tougher than anyone. Fearing white male backlash, they tried to control her bouncy Queens persona.

Ferraro walked the same tightrope that tripped up Hillary Clinton when she wondered if she should wheel around in that debate and tell the creeping Donald Trump to scram.

If she got angry, would she seem shrill, that dread word, and turn off voters? The Mondale inner circle wanted Ferraro to play the traditional running-mate role of hatchet man. But Gloria Steinem warned, “Nothing makes men more anxious than for a woman to be masculine.”

George H.W. Bush excitedly proclaimed after his debate with Ferraro that he had tried to “kick a little ass”; his press aide called Ferraro “bitchy”; and Barbara Bush said Ferraro was a word that “rhymes with rich.”

What started as a goose bump blind date with history curdled, as Ferraro got dragged into a financial mess involving her husband’s real estate business.

Right after the Reagan landslide, Democrats began muttering about returning to white Anglo-Saxon men on the ticket and not having any more “feminized” tickets that didn’t appeal to them.

I called women across the country for a magazine autopsy I was writing and was shocked to hear how ambivalent women still were about a woman running the country.

A 36-year-old mother of three from Bristol, Tenn., told me: “I put myself in her shoes. Could I sit down and logically make decisions for everybody without cracking up? I think women in general are weak. I know that sounds awful. But we women know we have our faults.’’

The next year, Ferraro put out a memoir talking about how depressed and paranoid she got, and how much she cried, admitting that she was not “prepared for the depth of the fury, the bigotry, and the sexism my candidacy would unleash.”

She said that Mondale’s male aides were so condescending that she instructed them to “pretend every time they talk to me or even look at me that I’m a gray-haired Southern gentleman, a senator from Texas.” (In her memoir, Sarah Palin aimed her sharpest barbs at John McCain’s aides.)

We don’t know whom Biden will choose but we do know the sort of hell she will endure at the hands of Team Trump. Even after the #MeToo revolution, even with women deciding this election, have the undercurrents of sexism in America changed so much? Hollywood, after all, only just began forking over major budgets to women directors, after years of absurdly stereotyping them.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, Kellyanne Conway, Kayleigh McEnany, Lara Trump and Jeanine Pirro — the Fox Force Five of retrograde Trumpworld — will have the knives out. Conservatives will undermine the veep candidate with stereotypes. She’s bitchy. She’s a nag. She’s aggressive. She’s ambitious. Who’s wearing the pants here, anyhow?

I asked Francis O’Brien if he thought, three and a half decades after he watched the sandstorm of sexism around Ferraro, whether her successor would have an easier time.

“I think it’s the same, in many ways,” he said. “This is a white Anglo-Saxon country founded by white Anglo-Saxon men for white Anglo-Saxon men. Sexism is like race. It’ll pop out. It’s in our DNA. We’re one of the few Western countries where women have never made it to the top.”

But on the bright side, when Chuck Schumer wanted to call Nancy Pelosi a lioness on Friday, referring to her negotiations with Republicans on the relief bill, he checked with her first to see if she would prefer lion.

The Speaker chose lioness.

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AUDRA MCDONALD INTERVIEW: “THEATRE CAN’T MISS THIS MOMENT” ·

(Michael Schulman’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/26; Illustration by Nhung Lê.)

Audra McDonald came out of Juilliard in 1993, a twenty-two-year-old with a lyric soprano as pristine as sterling silver, and quickly forged one of the most celebrated careers in Broadway history. A year out of school, she was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in a Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel,” in what was hailed as a breakthrough in “color-blind casting,” and won her first Tony Award for the role. More Tonys followed, for “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” And then more, for “Porgy and Bess” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” in which she played a broken Billie Holiday. She remains the only performer ever to win six Tonys and the only one to win in all four available categories.

McDonald’s plan for this summer was to play Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but, like all live theatre, the production was derailed by the pandemic. Instead, she’s been quarantined at her home in Westchester, with her husband, Will Swenson (her co-star in a 2007 production of “110 in the Shade”), their four children (three from previous marriages and a toddler, Sally), plus their eleven-year-old dog and “about five hundred frogs on the outside,” McDonald said recently. Nevertheless, she has not been idle. In April, she appeared, along with Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski, in a memorable rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” as part of an online concert for Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday. This month, she performed a virtual concert from a space off her garage which she calls the “Chill Room.”

And then there’s the racial reckoning that has spilled over from the Black Lives Matter protests into the theatre world. In June, McDonald co-founded Black Theatre United, along with performers such as Phylicia Rashad, Wendell Pierce, and Billy Porter. At its inaugural town hall, McDonald moderated a conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund. When I reached McDonald by Zoom, she was in her teen stepson’s bedroom; the “Chill Room” was undergoing an emergency chimney repair, and Sally could be heard singing in the hallway. “As much as we try to stay energetic for her, we just can’t replicate a three-year-old’s energy,” McDonald said. “Although we did just find some caterpillars in our garden, and we’re going to watch them turn into butterflies.” Our conversation—about her own metamorphoses, from a demoralized student at Juilliard, where she survived a suicide attempt, to a Broadway eminence to a community advocate—has been edited and condensed.

The theatre, like many industries, has been thrust into a big, belated moment of racial reckoning. As one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, Black theatre artists in America, how have you been thinking about what your role should be?

You need to do what you can to make more space. Every time that we are able to get into the room, I think it’s your job to create more space. I can’t tell you how many young African-American women, students or whatnot, come up to me and say, “I watched you as a kid, and I remember thinking, If she’s doing Broadway, then I can do it. And I can do it as a soprano. I don’t have to do it in the way that society would mainly see me—a sassy beltress.”

Did you have people like that growing up?

For me, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll, of course. Ella Fitzgerald. Obviously, she never did Broadway, but that was Ella’s voice. That was no one else’s voice except Ella’s. And, then, Lillias White I just adored. I had the album of “The Wiz,” which I listened to over and over again. I never thought that I would have the career that I ended up having, but I could at least be there. There was at least space to be taken up by Black women.

I’ve always used my voice to call attention to issues that I thought were important. I’ve been on the board of Covenant House for four or five years now, doing work with homeless youth, trying to give them shelter and education and food and dignity. With Black Theatre United, it’s about all of us saying, “We can’t sit on the sidelines. We can lament everything going on, but how can we as a group effect change in some grander way than just on our own?” As Sherrilyn Ifill said in that town hall, “Everybody has to use the tools in your hand.”

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