Tag Archives: creativity

Life Becomes Art: Modeling for Joel-Peter Witkin

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Joel-Peter Witkin, "Retablo (New Mexico)" (2007)

Joel-Peter Witkin, “Retablo (New Mexico)” (2007).

In 2010, I published my first book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.  In it, I analyze the artworks of contemporary disabled artists, many of which are self-portraits and performance, in comparison with images of disabled bodies by non-disabled, contemporary artists.  I also place such contemporary work in comparison with images from the history of body displays in art and visual culture, such as fine art painting, medical photographs, freakshow displays, documentary photographs, and popular culture.  I was very proud when the book was called the first to cross the disciplines of art history with disability studies and am happy that it has been adopted as required reading for courses on a variety of subjects related to visual culture, disability studies, and cultural studies.

Joel-Peter Witkin, "First Casting for Milo" (2005), as used for the cover of The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

Joel-Peter Witkin, “First Casting for Milo” (2005), as used for the cover of Ann Millett-Gallant’s book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

The book overlaps with subjects of many of my online courses at UNCG.  In it, I discuss the work of Frida Kahlo, which, although it precedes the time period on which the book focuses, set much precedence for the self-portrait and performative work of contemporary disabled, as well as many non-disabled, women artists.  We discuss such work in my online Art 100 course in a unit about feminist art and notions of arts and crafts.  Much of the artwork I analyze in my book is photography, which relates directly to my BLS course: Photography: Contexts and Illusions.  I also discuss performance, which is a major subject of my BLS course: Representing Women, as well as The Art of Life.  The Art of Life course focuses on the intersections between art and everyday life in a variety of ways, which is also a theme of this book.  In all three of these BLS classes, we debate the implications of self-display on the part of artists.  I delivered a talk about my book for the art department of UNCG in Fall of 2010 and again at the Multicultural Resource Center in Fall of 2012.  At both meetings I received a lot of interested feedback and compelling questions, as well as generous praise.  I am interested in teaching an online course centered on the subjects of my book in the future.

Frida Kahlo in 1931

Frida Kahlo in 1931, six years after the bus accident that left her in lifelong pain.

The subject matter of this book has proved to be personal to me in more ways than one, and in some ways unexpected.  I have been physically disabled since birth, involved in studying and making art since childhood, and interested in bridging these subjects in my teaching and writing as an academic professional.  And there is more.  While researching the beginnings of this book in New York City in the Fall of 2004, I visited the Ricco Maresca Gallery for a Joel-Peter Witkin exhibit (examples of Witkin’s work may be viewed at the Catherine Edelman Gallery and the Etherton Gallery).

I viewed the gallery and met the photography curator, Sarah Hasted, who was as enthusiastic about Witkin’s controversial work as I was and was also a personal friend of his.  She thought that because of my interest in his work, knowledge of art history, experiences (personal and scholarly) with disability, and, above all, because of my body, Joel and I should meet and collaborate on a photograph.  I was eager to serve as his model.  I felt that while arguing that self-display for disabled people, as well as other individuals, can be a liberating personal and political act, I felt that I should have the experience, or in other words, I should put my body where my mouth was.  After much correspondence and many sketches later, in the Spring of 2007, I traveled to Albuquerque, NM to meet him and to become a performing agent in one of his tableaux.

WitkinSelf1995

Witkin self portrait (1995).

I wrote about my many experiences in my journal and later in my book.  The long weekend is now a blur, but I recall specific details: visiting with Witkin’s horses and dogs earlier on the day of the shoot; befriending his wife, Barbara; taking off my prosthesis and my clothes, yet feeling no embarrassment; being painted white to replicate the color of marble sculpture; and posing beside another nude model for different shots.  Covered in body paint, I almost felt costumed, and as time passed and I posed with other models and in front of photography professionals, I felt less self-conscious.  Being posed as an eye catching detail in the photograph, I felt picturesque.  I remember how Witkin would become animated: “That’s it!” he’d exclaim, with almost orgasmic excitement.  Yet it was all business for him.  He was creating his work, which was the source of his fiery pleasure, and we were actors playing roles.

The resulting photograph is titled Retablo (New Mexico) (2007), referencing Latin American, Catholic folk art traditions (and, for me, many self-portraits by Frida Kahlo).  The image was conceived when Witkin saw a retablo image featuring two lesbians embracing, wearing only thongs, and posing above the following retablo prayer:

San Sebastian, I offer you this retablo because Veronica agreed to come live with me. We are thankful to you for granting us this happiness without having to hide from society to have our relationship. Sylvia M. (translation)

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer.

Witkin’s photograph also contains this prayer and, of course, fabulist imagery.  It is based on this and other similar retablos, printed in France, of homosexuals giving thanks to God and to saints for graces received in their lives. In Witkin’s version, Duccio’s Christ resists Lucifer’s temptations after viewing the future of the world, which includes the tragedy of 9/11.  Witkin’s composition features a triumphant female nude figure as Vernocia, displaying her corporeal glory and gazing down at her lover, Sylvia, a seated nude figure (me), beside her.  We are staged on a pedestal covered in flowing drapery and in front of an elaborate backdrop, which includes a photograph of the same model in a characteristic St Sebastian pose and a painted, shadowed, and winged form confronting a hand of salvation.  An iconographic reminder of death and a warning symbol of righteousness, a skeleton, lounges comically on the left side of the scene.  I cannot logically explain the photograph, as it defies a central narrative.  It is far more sensory than sensible.  I have my back to the camera and am seated on my two shorted legs (one congenitally amputated above the knee and one below), as I extend my “deformed,” or here fabulist/fabulous arms.  The female figures are opposing in the positions – one flaunting the front of her nude body, the other much smaller and flaunting her back.  The two bodies complement one another and complete a disfigured, heavenly narrative. Witkin said he especially, aesthetically admired my back, which inspired the pose.  This seated figure that is me is magical and all-powerful; as viewers stare at my back, I stare back.  Like the other models in my book, I perform for my readers/viewers.  Life becomes art.  The photograph epitomizes the Art of Life for me.

Today, a print of the photograph hangs in my living room, while another image of Witkin’s graces the cover of my book, I refer to the photographer as Joel, and Paul, my companion on the trip who served as Joel’s assistant, is now my husband.

It’s So Bad it’s Good.

By Claude Tate

I devoted one of my blog entries last fall to a movie, Raise the Red Lantern,  which I felt was not only an excellent movie in and of itself, but a movie of educational value in that it provided a window onto traditional Confucian society in early 20th century China.  In fact, I liked it so much I’ve used it a number of times in classes and recommended it on numerous occasions to my BLS students.

Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern

Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern

This blog is also devoted to a movie, but a very different kind of movie. This movie is far removed from an excellent movie. It’s a bad movie. A very bad movie. The general consensus is that it is the worst movie ever made.  In fact, it is so bad that even some critics see it as good.  For example, Phil Hall on his film review site, Rotten Tomatoes, said the exceptionally poor quality of the movie made him laugh so much, he could not put it at the top of his ‘worst of’ list.  Another source, Videohound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics, states that, “In fact, the film has become so famous for its own badness that it’s now beyond criticism.”

Also, this movie does not have the clear educational value that “Lantern” has. But if one defines educational value somewhat loosely—strike that, very loosely—it is not without some value.  In fact, I used it on several occasions in a face to face class I used to teach entitled “US History Since 1945″.  Since we had time in that class to go beyond the high points that one is limited to in the broad surveys, I tried to include things that would allow students to re-imagine what everyday life was like. Toward that end, when I covered the 1950s, among other things, I brought in clips of some of the old classic TV shows as well as some movies.  The atomic bomb and the possibility of nuclear annihilation became a part of our lives during the ’50s, so there were a number of movies made that were built around that theme. Some were good, while others were not so good. We also really became very much aware of space during this ’50s, so a number of movies were made devoted to that theme. Again, some were good, while others were bad. While I mainly used clips, when there was time, I would try to work in an entire movie using one or both of those themes. I tried a couple of the really good ones, but film-making has changed quite a bit since then, so students didn’t seem to appreciate the quality of what they were seeing. So I decided to look for stinkers.  Luckily, I not only found a stinker, the stench from this ‘masterpiece’ could encircle the earth several times over. Students generally really liked the movie, so I thought I would suggest it here.

Plan_9_poster

Plan 9 From Outer Space original poster

It is (music please) Plan 9 From Outer Space (made in 1956, released in 1959). It is a horror movie that incorporated an invasion from outer space theme as aliens planned to conquer the earth by raising the dead against us. It was conceived, produced, written, and directed by the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr.  After years of criticism, in 1980 Michael Medved and Harry Medved named it the “worst movie ever made” and awarded it their Golden Turkey Award.  That same year Ed Wood (who died in 1978) was also posthumously awarded the Golden Turkey Award as the worst director ever.  I don’t know whether any of the actors in the movie received any ‘worst’ awards for their performances, but a number of them should have. It also played at a Worst Films Festival in New Orleans, figured prominently in an episode of Seinfeld, and was the centerpiece of the movie, Ed Wood, (1994) which was directed and produced by Tim Burton and starred Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp as Ed Wood

Johnny Depp as Ed Wood

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to spoil the beauty of it by saying too much about the number of ‘gems’ it contains. But a few hints will not hurt.  Bela Lugosi was going to make a comeback with this movie, but died after only a few test shots. Ed, ‘ingeniously’ included those few shots on a number of occasions in the movie. For other shots, his wife’s chiropractor, who looked nothing like Lugosi, was the stand in. That is why the DVD released through Image Entertainment, states “Almost Starring Bela Lugosi” on the cover.  The special effects are also a thing of beauty as the flying saucers are campy even for the ’50s.  And one just has to love how night turns to day and back to night in back to back scenes. But if you wish to know more, a plot summary can be found on “The Movie Club Annuals…” website.

I own the DVD. I just had to have a physical copy. But it is in the public domain, and can be accessed on YouTube here.   You should also be able to download it from other sources.

Ed Wood

Ed Wood

By the way, Ed Wood made movies before and after this one.  I have not seen them so I cannot attest to their quality, but given his talent for movie making he showed in Plan 9 and the titles, I would assume they are bad also.  But movies evidently weren’t his only passion.  He wrote a large number of books, which I have not read nor intend to, but from the sampling of titles I’ve seen, he seems to have been just as good at writing books as making movies. Ed also led an interesting personal life which you get some hint of in the movie, Ed Wood.  If you want to find out more about Ed or his other “artistic” endeavors, you’re on your own.  I’m only recommending Plan 9 From Outer Space.

If you plan to watch Plan 9, I would suggest you watch Ed Wood first.  I think it will help you understand and appreciate both Ed and Plan 9 since it focuses on Ed’s early career and the making of this ‘masterpiece’.  By the way, Ed Wood is a very good movie. It won two Academy Award, one for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau), and one for Best Makeup (Rick Baker, Ve Neill, and Yonlanda Tousseing).  Unfortunately, this movie is not in the public domain so you will need to rent it.

Vampira (Maila Nurmi) in Plan 9

Vampira (Maila Nurmi) in Plan 9 From Outer Space

I would also suggest you watch it with friends. It’s always more fun to see an awful flick with friends as they may see things to make fun of you may miss. So I guess it has value beyond just its dubious educational value. It’s a great excuse for friends to get together.

Pride and Prejudice

by Ann Millett-Gallant

From Wednesday, Sept 26 – Sunday, Sept 30, Durham hosted the 28th semi-annual Pride Weekend.  This festival, which began in 1981 and is the largest LGBT event in North Carolina, included a number of colorful performances, including music, dance, karaoke, DJs, and comedy (especially a headliner by Joan Rivers), parties and get-togethers, lunches and dinners, meetings over coffee, walk and runs, church services, vendors, and a lavish and lively parade.  According to their website, the mission of these events is:

  • to promote unity and visibility among lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered people
  • to promote a positive image through programs and public activities that foster an awareness of our past struggles
  • to be recognized as an important and talented sector of our diverse state.
  • to support and encourage HIV/AIDS education, breast cancer awareness and basic health education

Although I am in complete support of these missions and always love a good party, I have only attended the parade twice with a friend of mine who is a lesbian.  I was thrilled when my new friend, Jay O’Berski, invited me to be a part of the float hosted this year by his Durham-based theater company, The Little Green Pig.  We all wore t-shirts in support of Pussy Riot, a Russian, Feminist Punk collective who stage activist Guerilla performances all over Moscow and who were recently incarnated (for more information, see this interview).

This is a photo of me in my Pussy Riot t-shirt in the café of the Durham Whole Foods before the parade.  Unfortunately, pouring rain prevented me from marching, or “scooting” in the parade, so I modeled my shirt where other marchers were gathered.  Although the parade was inaccessible to me this year, the spirit of the event inspired me.

The Pussy Riot acts relate to Unit 6 of my course BLS 348: Representing Women, “Performance as Resistance,” and most specifically, the activist work of the Guerilla Girls.

The Guerilla Girls are a performance team whose work includes live actions as well as posters and printed projects to critique the masculine biases of art history. The assigned reading for this class, the Introduction and Conclusion to The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, presents a selection of their written projects, many of which engage irony, satire, and witty sense of humor. The Guerilla Girls call for change and invite others to partake in their protests.

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls challenged the Metropolitan Museum on their lack of representation of female artists. Almost 85% of the Mets’ nudes were female, compared with the only 5% of their collection of work by female artists.  This ad above appeared on New York City buses.

Representing Women also includes an assigned reading on homosexual artists:  Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Artists,” in Amelia Jones, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition (London, New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 128-129.

After the parade and conducting research for this blog, I became aware that one lesson might not be enough.  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program emphasizes diversity and the breadth and wealth of differing human experiences.

Jay Parr raised similar points in his blog post of 9/27/11.  In “The Significance of a Simple Ring,” he discussed his discomfort at seeing a non-married, homosexual man wearing a ring.  Parr analyzed his negative reaction, given his full support of and numerous friendships with the LGBT community.   In the specific context of UNCG, Parr stated: “The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you.”

Parr then focused on the significance of the ring as a symbol of one’s commitment to their spouse, as well as of the legal and social status of marriage.  He advocated that all couples should have the right to the ring and all the significance and rights surrounding it.

Parr’s post predated passage of the marriage amendment to the state constitution in May 2012, which solidified the ban of same sex marriage in North Carolina “Defense of Marriage.”  I felt disappointed and defeated by this law, but maybe, at least, it will motivate those who are against such legislation to speak out.  Not long after this act, President Obama “came out” with his support of same sex marriage, bringing the discussion to nation attention.

Opponents of same sex marriage say it’s an affront to traditional marriage.  Yet, my husband and I, although we are heterosexual, do not have a traditional marriage: we lived together for 3 years before becoming engaged, I proposed to him, and we have no plans, nor desire to have children.  Further, I was born without fingers, so I literally can’t wear a ring.  Nonetheless, we were allowed to get married, and the minister I found online was, I’m pretty sure, a lesbian.  She was ordained, but would not have legally been able to marry a loving partner herself.  In my opinion, bans on same sex marriage are an affront to Civil Rights.  Interracial marriage was legalized in all states not until 1967, and 45 years later we are debating similar issues.  I hope that events like the Pride Parade and public support of same sex marriage will lead toward positive change.

I feel hopeful this Fall, as new television shows such as The New Normal and Couples have strong and openly homosexual characters, adding to the presence of happy, same sex couples on television, in examples such as Modern Family (winner of the most 2012 Emmy awards), Glee, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as popular shows that ended in the past few years, like Ugly Betty and Brothers and Sisters.  While I hesitate to wish reality would mirror television in general, this is evidence that perhaps American culture is beginning to have more exposure to and familiarity with so-called “Alternative” lifestyles.

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Editor’s note: Ann Millett-Gallant will be giving a book talk about her book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, on Tuesday, November 13, at 3:00 PM, in the Multicultural Resource Center, on the ground floor the Elliott University Center.

Nimrod: What’s In a Name?

by Matt McKinnon

My teenage son is a nimrod. Or so I thought.

And if you have teenagers, and were born in the second half of the twentieth century, you have probably thought at one time or another that your son (or daughter) was a nimrod too, and would not require any specific evidence to explain why.

Of course this is the case only if you are of a certain age: namely, a Baby Boomer or Gen Xer (like myself).

For if you are any older, and if you are rather literate, then you would be perplexed as to why I would think that my son was a nimrod, and why was I not capitalizing Nimrod as it should be.  Since it is, after all, a proper noun.

It is?

Yes, it is.  Or rather it was.  Let me explain.

It turns out, the word “nimrod” (or more properly “Nimrod”) has a fascinating history in which it goes about a substantial reinterpretation.  (Any nimrod can find this out by searching the web, though there is precious little explanation there.)   This, by itself, isn’t surprising, as many words that make their way through the ages transform as well.  But the transformation of “Nimrod” to “nimrod” is particularly interesting in what it tells us about ourselves and our culture.

Nimrod, you see, was a character from the Hebrew Scriptures, or as Christians know it, the Old Testament:

“Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, ʻLike Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.ʼ”  (Genesis 10:8-9 NRSV)

This is the manner in which older biblically literate folks will understand the term: “as a mighty hunter.”

But there’s more here, for these folks also might understand the term as referencing a tyrannical ruler.

Why?  Well, the etymology of the word links it to the Hebrew “to rebel,” not for anything that Nimrod actually does in the Old Testament, but because, as many scholars attest, it is probably a distortion of the name for the Mesopotamian war-god Ninurta.  And the later chroniclers of Israelite religion didn’t have much sympathy for the polytheism of their Mesopotamian neighbors—especially when it so obviously informed their own religious mythology.

So the word, when it very early on enters the biblical narrative, already shows signs of transformation and tension as referencing both a mighty hunter as well as someone rebellious against the Israelite god.

In fact, Jewish and Christian tradition name Nimrod as the leader of the folks who built the Tower of Babel, though this is not found anywhere in the scriptures.  This, then, is how Nimrod is now portrayed in more conservative circles, despite the lack of biblical attestation:

And as the word is already attested to in Middle English, by the 16th century it is clearly being used in both manners in the English language: as a tyrant and as a great warrior or hunter.

Now I can assure you, neither of these describes my teenage son.  So what gives?

Well, “Nimrod” shows up in a 1932 Broadway play (which only had 11 showings) about two lovesick youngsters:

“He’s in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.”

Here, however, the emphasis is still on the term’s former meaning as a hunter, though its use in the play to describe a somewhat frivolous and hapless fellow who moves from one true love to the next points us in the right direction.

And in a 1934 film You’re Telling Me, W.C. Fields’ character, a bit of a buffoon himself (and a drunkard), takes a few swings of a limp golf club and hands it back to his dim-witted caddy, saying in a way only W.C. Fields could:

“Little too much whip in that club, nimrod.”

So here we have the first recorded instance of the word’s transformation from a great hunter or tyrant to a stupid person or jerk.

But that’s not the end of the story.  After all, how many of us have seen You’re Telling Me?  (I haven’t, at least, not until I did the research.)

So the last, and arguably most important piece to the puzzle is not the origination of the word or its transformation, but rather the dissemination of it.

And that, as I’m sure many of you are aware, is none other than T.V. Guide’s greatest cartoon character of all time: Bugs Bunny, who first debuted in the 1940’s, not that long after You’re Telling Me premiered.

In this context, the one most folks born after World War II are familiar with, Bugs Bunny refers to the inept hunter Elmer Fudd as a “little nimrod.”  And the rest, as they say, is history.

For what emerges from Bugs’ usage is not the traditional reference to Fudd as a hunter (though this is the obvious, albeit ironic, intention), but rather Fudd’s more enduring (and endearing?) quality of ineptitude and buffoonery.

And anyone who has (or knows) a teenager can certainly attest to the applicability of this use of the term in describing him or her.

But the important thing is what this says about literacy and our contemporary culture.

For whereas my parents’ generation and earlier were more likely than not to receive their cultural education from Classical stories, the great literature of Europe, and the Bible, those of us born in the latter half of the 20th century and later, are much more likely to receive our cultural education from popular culture.

I have seen this firsthand when teaching, for example, Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” which offers a critique of Judaism and Christianity by parodying scripture.  The trouble is, when students don’t know the referent, they can’t fully understand or appreciate the allusion.  And this is as true of Shakespeare and Milton as it is of Nietzsche…or Bugs Bunny for that matter.

And the ramifications of this are far greater than my choosing the proper term to criticize my teenage son.

(Though ya gotta admit, “nimrod” sounds pretty apropos.)

Act 2: Jabberbox Puppet Theater!

By Deborah Seabrooke

I started teaching at UNCG in my late twenties.  I’ve been here a long time. I’ve always been a part-time teacher and that has given me a lot of freedom to pursue other things.  I love teaching, but on the side have kept a studio in my house for all my art projects—painting, quilting, book-making, fiction writing.  Until two years ago, that was the extent of it, but then I began thinking that I needed to try something new.  A friend of mine who runs Greensboro’s only independent bookstore, Glenwood Coffee and Books, was hearing me out one day as I blathered on about getting older, but feeling like there was still a lot left to do.  I’d loved acting way back in high school, but had had no experience on stage since then.  My friend, Alan Brilliant, told me about an adult puppet theater that he’d attended in the Village in New York back in the 50s, done in a living room with a hand- made stage and puppets.  The puppeteers were two aspiring actors who needed an outlet, and started to invite their friends to their salon-style shows.  The puppets acted out Noel Coward comedies, the concept took off, and soon people had to jump on the tickets as soon as they could or they would be out of luck.  Adult puppet theater?   I began to mull this over.

Gingher and Seabrooke (right) take bows at Mack and Mack in downtown Greensboro.

Long story short, a new puppet theater for adults, the Jabberbox Puppet Theater, is already launched in Greensboro, with myself and my dear old friend Marianne Gingher.  We met back in the early 70s in the MFA program in creative Writing right here at UNCG.  Marianne is now a tenured professor in the Creative Writing program at UNC, and is plenty busy, but when I mentioned doing an adult puppet theater, she hesitated about two seconds before wanting to come on board.  We write the plays ourselves and make all the puppets.   Every year, we give 20% of our proceeds to a village school in Lumpampa, Zambia where we had traveled together and where the seed sprouted for the plot of our first play, “African Queens.” A neighbor of mine made our portable stage.  Did I say that we give you wine and home-made dessert with the ticket price?

We’ll enter our third season in May, 2012.  In 2010, “African Queens” ran for 15 performances in May and June, and all of them sold out.  Our second play, “Little Town, Big Stars,” ran for 17 performances in 2011 and they sold out, too. While our specialty is doing the shows in our living rooms, we are now expanding. In October 2011, during 17 Days, the United Arts Council’s downtown arts festival, we performed at Mack and Mack on Elm St to bigger audiences.  We have a new gig this coming June 2012 at The Garage in Winston-Salem.  In addition, we’ll travel, as we’ve done from the beginning, to living rooms and garages of friends in Chapel Hill and Wilmington.  We now even have an old van with a bumper sticker: “Puppets in Trunk.”

Jabberbox puppeteers in action during a performance in Seabrooke's livingroom.

I’m also happy to say that our grown children have helped us. Marianne’s son guided us around Zambia while he was in the Peace Corps there, introducing us to some memorable characters. Our other kids helped us by making a beautiful website, providing original music, being savvy critics, and traveling from afar to attend our shows and cheer us on.  Charlie Headington, my husband and a UNCG teacher, emcees our shows sporting a green polka-dot tie.

Before I end, I’m going to put in a plug for home-grown art—there is so much to do and see right here in Greensboro, on campus, or just a little bit off-campus. You need to support your friends, fellow teachers, and fellow students as we make our entrepreneurial and spirited way in this world of sour economic news.  Take a walk on the wild side.  Buy local. Put a few bucks down on something different.  When the show’s over, stroll the sidewalk home, contemplate the stars and think about what you’d like to do next.

Why I Chose an Online Degree at UNCG – The Asynchronous Advantage of the BLS Program

By Catherine Kahn
(Class of December 2012)

I began my college education as many people do:  fresh out of  high school, living in a dorm, attending a top tier institution.  As many of you know, life has a way of changing your plans.  After three years of working towards my degree, I met and married a Naval Officer.  My education took a backseat to supporting him and his career especially in the aftermath of September 11th, when he was more likely to be flying missions over Afghanistan and Iraq than to be home.  Life eventually settled down, and I thought it time to complete my educational goals, but by then there were a myriad of options− so many online programs− private, public, for-profit, not-for-profit, etc in addition to classes in a traditional setting.

Online courses definitely appealed to me.  I live just minutes from another public university in North Carolina, but the asynchronous nature of the online environment definitely fits into my schedule as a mother of three far better than traditional classes.  It seems that almost all schools offer online classes these days, but the BLS program and UNCG stood out to me for several reasons.  I am not merely an online student in a degree completion program; I have the opportunity to connect with other students and attend traditional classes should I so choose.  I have all the resources of UNCG as a state-supported institution behind me.  The school’s full accreditation and low tuition made it an easy choice for me to complete my degree here.

I’ll admit I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the classes or the BLS program, but I received a thorough well-rounded education.  The BLS program is a traditional liberal arts education that teaches critical thinking skills by exposing students to a variety of topics in the humanities.  In today’s society, which often places job training over critical thinking skills, programs like this are becoming extinct, yet I believe that these sort of classes truly make for better students and better people.

Professor Claude Tate’s “Visions of Creation” class was perhaps the most intense of the eleven courses I took within the BLS program.  By reading and analyzing creation myths from various cultures, the class was able to see patterns emerge and challenge our own views towards creation and learn what influences such beliefs.  This course was more than a religious survey, because it really forced the students to view the studied societies through the lenses of their respective creation myths, and in doing so we saw how these creation myths can shape an individual culture, including our own.

“Women, War, and Terror” taught by Professor Carrie Levesque opened my eyes to how women have been brutalized by war utilizing first-person narratives written by women who had lived through 20th century atrocities such as the Holocaust, Stalin’s post-WWII Soviet Union, and the Bosnian War.  As a student, I had often wondered why we never heard the women’s stories.  Surely, they were just as horrific as the men’s.  Surely they were beaten, starved, raped, tortured, and treated like no human being every should be treated.  Professor Levesque’s class delved into these topics, and while the readings and discussions were often painful, they were nothing compared to what the authors experienced.  The authors were marginalized in their own societies, but our society needs classes like this to remind us that women have voices and sometimes they scream out in pain, and we need to listen.

I could go on and on about the classes I have taken, because save just one or two I have enjoyed them immensely and learned so much.  While studying the plays of Shakespeare, the history of the theatre, writing my own memoirs, discussing ethics, reviewing some of the great trials that have shaped America, or studying one of countless other topics, all the courses in the BLS program forced me to make connections.  I learned to connect whatever I was studying to my experiences and to this culture.  And, that is what critical thinking is all about.  I feel my education at UNCG has prepared me for my next step in life.
I’m graduating next month from UNCG with my BA summa cum laude, because of the BLS program, and next fall I’ll be attending a top ten law school to which I have already been accepted.  The UNCG BLS program has made it possible for me to succeed and fulfill my dreams by both fitting into my demanding schedule and providing me with a world class education.

Beyond Apple

By Marc Williams

Following Steve Jobs’ passing on October 5, countless articles, blogs, and remembrances have paid tribute to Jobs’ contributions to the technology industry. I could certainly join that chorus, given that I do so much of my online teaching for the BLS program from my iMac, iPad, and iPhone. I’m a dedicated and unabashed Mac user and I thank Steve Jobs for helping make life a little simpler through these brilliant gadgets.

Somewhat overlooked in the tributes to Jobs are his contributions as the owner/CEO of Pixar. Jobs purchased Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, which at the time was developing 3D animation hardware for commercial use. Pixar’s hardware development and sales business was not terribly successful and the company began selling off divisions and laying off employees.

During this period of struggle, Jobs was willing to consider a proposal from one of his employees, John Lasseter. Lasseter, an animator who had been fired from Disney and subsequently hired by Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with short films and advertisements, all completely animated by computer. Lasseter pitched Jobs on the idea of creating a computer-animated feature film. Such an endeavor would be tremendously risky for a company like Pixar, which had not been organized as a film studio. Not only did Jobs sign off on the idea, but he was able to secure a three-picture deal with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Jobs shifted the company’s primary focus to making movies.

The feature film Lasseter pitched to Jobs became Toy Story, and he went on to direct A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2. Lasseter also served as executive producer for virtually every other Pixar film (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3) and he is now the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

There’s no denying Lasseter’s genius but Pixar as we know it today would not exist without Steve Jobs. Jobs took a tremendous leap of faith, entrusting the company’s future to the brilliance of his collaborators.

A leader doesn’t necessarily have to be the person with the best idea; sometimes the leader simply must recognize the best idea in the room—and get out of the way. Harry Truman said, “it is amazing how much you can accomplish in life if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” The story of Pixar demonstrates that Steve Jobs fully understood this simple truth.

John Lasseter

“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.”

- John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer & Ed Catmull, President, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

A Thousand Faces

By Marc Williams

I teach a number of courses involving dramatic literature, including Big Plays, Big Ideas in the BLS program at UNCG.  In most of these classes, I discuss dramatic structure—the way that incidents are arranged into a plot.  Whenever I teach dramatic structure, I always turn to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to serve as an example.  Aristotle believed this play to be tragedy “in its ideal state,” partially because the incidents are arranged in a clear cause-and-effect manner.  One incident logically follows the next and although there are some surprises, none of the events are random, accidental, or tangential.

The story of Oedipus is an ancient myth.  20th century mythology scholar Joseph Campbell wrote about Oedipus frequently, including in his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this book, Campbell outlines the “monomyth,” a dramatic structure that many, if not most, stories seem to adhere in one manner or another.  The monomyth consists of several stages of the hero’s journey: a call to adventure, a refusal of that call, followed by aid from a supernatural entity, crossing a threshold into unfamiliar territory, entering/escaping the belly of the whale, traveling a road of trials, and so on, all the way through the hero’s return.  Oedipus’ journey follows Cambell’s pattern almost perfectly. The pattern applies not only to Ancient Greek myths but to stories from virtually every culture across the globe.

Campbell describes the stages of the hero’s journey at length in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and also diagrams the hero’s journey thus:

I was instantly reminded of Joseph Campbell and his diagram today when I came across this:

1.  A character is in a zone of comfort
2.  But they want something
3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation
4.  Adapt to it
5.  Get what they wanted
6.  Pay a heavy price for it
7.  Then return to their familiar situation
8.  Having changed

This diagram was developed by Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, and according to this article on Wired.com, is apparently the inspiration for every episode of the show:

Dan Harmon

[Harmon] began doodling the circles in the late ’90s, while stuck on a screenplay. He wanted to codify the storytelling process— to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

Harmon calls his circles embryos— they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story— and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”

The eight-step Harmon embryo model is simpler than Cambell’s monomyth, which contains seventeen structural units. Harmon’s embryo model, because it is simpler than Campell’s, is probably also more universal.  And indeed, Harmon uses this embryo as a litmus test to determine if an episode of Community is structurally sound. It is, after all, a tried and true formula for great storytelling.  So where else can this structure be seen?

The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars come to mind.   Have you encountered a monomyth on television or in a movie theatre recently?  Or a story that follows Harmon’s embryo model?

Thinking, Adapting, and Thinking

By Marc Williams

Eric Ries

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, has some bold ideas about entrepreneurship.  In a recent interview for Wired magazine online, Ries argues that old adage “right place at the right time” is not a formula for business success:

 “There was a study done in the early 20th century of all the entrepreneurs who entered the automobile industry around the same time as Henry Ford; there were something like 500 automotive companies that got funded, had the internal combustion engine, had the technology, and had the vision. Sixty percent of them folded within a couple of years.”

Ford, according to Ries, was simply better at adapting to changing circumstances than his competitors.  It wasn’t the quality of his original idea, which wasn’t at all unique, but rather his willingness to change his idea.

A contemporary example Ries uses is Dropbox, a file-sharing program that allows uses to sync files and folders online—and allows users to designate folders as public, private, or shared with only selected users.  Dropbox didn’t begin with a massive PR campaign—it started small, adapted to what its small customer base wanted, and experienced overwhelming growth because they continued to adapt.

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Watch live video from Startup Lessons Learned on Justin.tv

So what can teachers do to help prepare students for a world in which adaptability is key?  In my online courses in the BLS program at UNCG, I typically utilize at least one assignment that requires revision.  Sometimes it is easy to focus on obvious errors—mechanics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, et cetera.  When reading student writing, I challenge myself to look for the ideas and challenge my students to strengthen, support, or even reconsider those ideas.    In what other ways can teachers promote adaptability in the classroom?

Video Games: Live!

By Marc Williams

RSC's production of "The Winter's Tale," photo from the RSC.

This summer’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York hosts one of the most highly-anticipated theatrical events in recent memory: a six-week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company that began on July 6.  The RSC is located in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town, and is widely considered the world’s top producer of classical theatre.  For this New York residency, not only has the RSC brought five of its exquisite productions to the Lincoln Center Festival but it has also reconstructed its Stratford performance space right inside the Park Avenue Armory.  For American theatre enthusiasts, the residency is a dream-come-true: a chance to see five RSC productions without purchasing five airline tickets.

While the RSC has generated appropriate buzz over the past few weeks, another Shakespearean experiment has stolen some headlines.  Sleep No More, a loose adaptation of Macbeth, is produced in a 1930′s Manhattan hotel on 27th Street.  The production embraces mansion-platea staging, a technique we study in my Eye Appeal class in the BLS program at UNCG.  Mansion-platea staging involves small performance areas (“mansions”) that represent a particular location in the story, with several mansions lined up in a row or circle, each representing a different location.  The actors and audience move together from one mansion to the next as the story progresses. This isn’t how most of us encounter theatre today, so Sleep No More may seem highly unusual.  However, walking through a haunted house or even sitting on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride replicates mansion-platea staging faithfully.

Sleep No More‘s producing organization, PUNCHDRUNK, has inserted an unusual twist on mansion-platea staging: audience choice.  This production not only immerses the audience into the playing space with the actors but also gives the audience freedom to wander about the six-story building however they like.  They can follow characters from one room to the next for a linear narrative experience, or move randomly around the building for a more fractured experience.  No matter how they choose, the audience cannot possibly witness the entire production at once since there are events happening simultaneously in different areas of the building.

One of the rooms from "Sleep No More," photo from the NY Times.

I’ve not seen the production but have read much about it.  I was surprised when I read Wired.com’s Jason Schreier’s review of this production.

[Sleep No More is] a nonlinear narrative in which the order of events — and consequently, the plot — is determined by what you see.

The primary problem with this method of storytelling is that you’re not really part of it.

Sleep No More has two rules: Keep your mask on and don’t talk to anybody. Outside those restrictions, you can do whatever and go wherever you want. At one point you might wind up in a dimly lit graveyard, alone and terrified. Then you’re in a ballroom, where garishly dressed gentlemen and ladies are dancing to an infectious beat. Next you’re in a pantry, opening jars of candy and trying to decide whether eating them will kill you. Problem is, nothing you do really matters.

A screen shot from "L.A. Noire," by Rockstar Games.

The title of his review (“Interactive Play Sleep No More Feels Like a Game, But More Confusing”) suggests the experience is intended to be interactive but that  isn’t true.  He goes on to compare the production to several popular video games like L.A. Noire and Fallout: New Vegas, arguing that the games are superior experiences primarily because the game player isn’t “just an observer.”  This perspective probably seems reasonable to Schreier, who is primarily a video game critic.  My question for Schreier is: are audiences accustomed to having an effect on the outcome of a theatrical performance?

In a way, all theatre is interactive in that actor and audience inhabit the same space; the audience’s reactions and attitudes psychologically affect the actors and this effect subtly (and sometimes boldly) influences the performance.  But audiences aren’t typically expected to participate in the action, which is what Schreier seems to expect: a kind of theatrical “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

In contrast to Schreier’s dissatisfaction, several major theatre critics have responded positively to Sleep No More and audiences have been attracted to the production’s novelty.  However, many theatre practitioners have long wondered how video games and other electronic media might affect the next generation of theatregoers.  Will the theatre adapt to its changing audience? Will there be an audience at all?  Schreier’s review makes me wonder if the if the next generation of theatergoers is already clamoring for theatrical evolution.  And while PUNCHDRUNK and other organizations are experimenting with theatrical form, one has to wonder how (or if) a theatrical institution like the Royal Shakespeare Company will adapt when the time comes.  How will other artistic forms evolve with the video game generation?