Tag Archives: Marc Williams

Homophobia and Gay Advocacy in the NFL

By Marc Williams

Chris Kluwe (left).

Chris Kluwe (left).

I’m a football fan. I never played the game in any organized leagues but when I was young, my father took me to college games at his alma mater. Many of my friends played football and followed their favorite teams on television. After college I became more interested in the professional game—the National Football League—and studying the game became a hobby. Football is a surprisingly complex game and the NFL has many fascinating layers beyond the game itself—player safety and head trauma is a major topic of the day. The league’s salary cap, the college draft, free agency, coaching personnel and schemes, and many other subjects provide intrigue throughout the year—not only during the seventeen-week season. One story I’ve followed over the past two years is the off-field advocacy work conducted by Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo.

Kluwe recently wrote an article for Deadspin.com detailing his account of how his employment with the Minnesota Vikings came to an end in 2013. As a member of the Vikings in 2012, Kluwe campaigned actively against Minnesota’s proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which voters in the state defeated at the polls in November of that year. While Kluwe’s activism was widely praised in the media, he claims he was treated with hostility by his coaches. Head coach Leslie Frazier, Kluwe claims, twice urged Kluwe to stop speaking on the subject. Kluwe also claims the Vikings’ public relations department received requests to interview Kluwe but the team failed to relay these requests to the player in an apparent effort to silence him. Most shocking is Kluwe’s claim that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer—Kluwe’s immediate supervisor—once voiced his opposition to Kluwe’s activities by stating, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.” Kluwe claims the Vikings organization terminated his contract following the 2012 season not because of his on-field performance but rather because of his marriage equality advocacy. Interestingly, Kluwe, who was an above-average punter in his last season with the Vikings, was unable to find a job with any team in the NFL in 2013.

emmett-burns

Emmett Burns.

Ayanbadejo’s team in 2012, the Baltimore Ravens, is also located in a state that voted on marriage equality that November. In Maryland, voters supported a constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage and in the months leading up to the vote, Ayanbadejo became a folk hero for amendment supporters after a state legislator urged Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to silence the outspoken player. Delegate Emmett Burns’ letter read, in part:

Many of your fans are opposed to such a view [on same sex marriage] and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement. I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.

I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.

Brendon Ayanbadejo.

Brendon Ayanbadejo.

Burns’ attempt to silence Ayanbadejo met stiff criticism from free speech and marriage equality advocates alike. One particularly memorable criticism came from none other than Chris Kluwe in an open letter to Burns posted on Deadspin.com. Following the 2012-2013 legislative session, Burns opted not to run for re-election in 2014.

During the 2012 NFL season, when Kluwe and Ayanbadejo spoke on marriage equality, they were often asked if the NFL is ready for an openly gay player. At the time, there had never been an active gay player in the NFL. For that matter, there had never been an openly gay player in any of the major professional American sports leagues—Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, or the National Hockey League. Kluwe hinted that he had spoken to gay players in the NFL and that one or more of those players was planning to come out to his teammates and the media. These players have not yet made their identities known—but the NFL will likely soon have its first openly gay player in 2014.

Michael Sam (#52).

Michael Sam (#52).

University of Missouri All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam, in an interview with the New York Times published last Sunday, February 9, announced that he is gay. Sam, a senior at Missouri, is preparing for the upcoming NFL draft, where a team might select him. While there will be much written between now and May about how Sam’s announcement will affect his career, many draft experts believe that Sam will indeed be drafted by an NFL team. If true, the hypothetical question that Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo were asked so often in 2012: “would teammates accept a gay player in the locker room?” will be answered this summer as Sam reports to NFL training camp.

One should note that Sam is not guaranteed to be selected in the NFL draft. While many draft experts project him as a mid-to-late round draft pick, some anonymous team officials and scouts suggest that Sam is an “overrated” player and may not be drafted at all. Or, if he is invited to a training camp, he may not have the physical skills to succeed in the NFL. If Sam fails to make an NFL roster, some critics may assume that Sam’s sexuality is the cause. However, Sam is no superstar and his professional potential is very much in question. If he wants to be an NFL player, he will first have to prove that he can play the game on a professional level.

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin

There is good reason to believe Sam will face other difficulties as well. Just as Kluwe discovered that same-sex advocacy was viewed as a distraction (or worse) by his coaches, Sam’s future coaches may find the young player a magnet for media attention. His teammates will be asked for their thoughts on the locker room’s acceptance of Sam. And while Sam will no doubt have some supportive teammates, a number of NFL players have spoken out against the possibility of a gay teammate. Shortly before the 2013 Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver was asked if he would welcome a gay teammate. He responded, “Ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff…Can’t be…in the locker room, nah.” And just last Friday, special investigator Ted Wells released his report on bullying allegations made by Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin, specifically against his teammates Richie Incognito, John Jerry, and Mike Pouncey. Wells’ findings not only demonstrate a vicious culture of bullying amongst Miami players and coaches but also pervasive homophobia. Regarding an unnamed player, called “Player A” in the report, Wells states that:

Martin and other witnesses informed us that Player A was repeatedly called a “faggot” and subjected to other homophobic invective […].

Incognito and others acknowledged that Player A was routinely touched by Incognito, Jerry and Pouncey in a mockingly suggestive manner, including on his rear end, while being taunted about his supposed homosexuality. Incognito specifically admitted that he would grab Player A and ask for a hug as part of this “joke.”

Martin said that on one occasion, Pouncey physically restrained Player A and, in full view of other players, jokingly told Jerry to “come get some pussy,” and that Jerry responded by touching Player A’s buttocks in a way that simulated anal penetration. Pouncey and Jerry both denied this allegation […].

The evidence shows that [Offensive Line Coach Jim Turner] overheard and participated in this behavior toward Player A. During the 2012 Christmas season, Coach Turner gave all of the offensive linemen gift bags that included a variety of stocking stuffers. In each gift bag except for Player A’s, Turner included a female “blow-up” doll; Player A’s bag included a male doll.

Chris Culliver at The Trevor Project.

Chris Culliver at The Trevor Project.

The culture that evolved in Miami seems to be extreme, even by NFL standards, and a positive outcome for Michael Sam and other gay players is certainly possible. In the New York Times interview, Sam notes that he came out to his University of Missouri teammates during the summer of 2013, while the team was preparing for its season. The Missouri team and Sam individually received many accolades and much media attention—yet Sam’s teammates kept his secret the entire year. And his teammates clearly respect him—they voted him Most Valuable Player at the season’s end. The Missouri football team proved that a football locker room can indeed welcome and support a gay player. And in the NFL, many players who have publicly made homophobic remarks are responding to outreach groups hoping to educate those players. In fact, after Chris Culliver’s remarks sparked controversy in 2013, he not only apologized for his comments but also agreed to attend counseling with the Trevor Project so he could better understand why his comments were so widely criticized. Culliver not only followed through on that promise, but later spent a day volunteering at the Trevor Project. While a single day of volunteerism is a small step to be sure, if Culliver can make that step, who says the rest of the NFL isn’t ready? We may find out, if Michael Sam indeed begins his NFL career in May.

Merry and Bright: The Spectacle of the Christmas Tree

By Marc Williams

“Spectacle” can be broadly defined as a visually striking display, event, or performance. Spectacle has long been associated with live performance, since costumes, scenery, lighting, dance, and other visual elements are frequently used to enhance the performance experience. In my BLS class, Eye Appeal, we focus on the spectacles that occur not only on stage but also in every day life. In my most recent blog entry, I wrote about the spectacle of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and its spectacular precursors, the cycle plays of medieval Europe–in this post I’ll focus on Christmas trees and other holiday displays.

2013-White-House-Christmas-Tree-e1386618998921The day after Thanksgiving, November 29, 2013, an 18.5-foot Douglas fir was delivered to the White House. Since 1966, the White House Christmas Tree has been provided annually by the National Christmas Tree Association. Since that time, the First Lady has been responsible for creating a theme for the tree each year, and its decoration and lighting has become an annual spectacle for those in the Washington, D.C. area—an interesting blend of politics, religion, and spectacle. There were indeed White House Christmas trees before 1966, but more on that later.

The delivery of the 2013 White House Christmas Tree

Evergreens have been associated with winter solstice for many centuries. In Ancient Egypt and later in Ancient Rome, for example, evergreens were brought into homes to celebrate the continuation or return of life following the winter. Some believe these pagan solstice traditions were adapted by early Christians and evolved into our modern Christmas tree. The earliest recorded Christmas trees were found in 16th century Germany and were typically decorated with apples. The apple decorations are associated with December 24, as the medieval Christian calendar celebrated Adam and Eve’s Day on that date. Christmas trees were introduced to the United States in the early 1800s and were sold commercially by the 1850s [source]. At the time, Christmas trees were a new “fad” in America and many people associated Christmas trees with the German settlers who introduced them.

Interestingly, the White House Christmas Tree has a controversial past. The first White House Christmas tree was displayed by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. In 1899, while Christmas trees had become more common in America, they were still considered by many to be a fad. A White House Christmas tree was by no means obligatory. That year, Chicago Tribune readers mounted a letter-writing campaign urging President McKinley to buck the Christmas tree trend for a variety of reasons—many letters focused on deforestation, with one writer calling Christmas trees “arboreal infanticide.” Other letter writers called Christmas trees “un-American,” since Christmas trees were still considered a German tradition by many. Given the Christmas tree’s pagan connections, some letter-writers viewed the White House tree as anti-Christian. Controversy surrounding the tree continues today, as some critics wonder if the White House Christmas Tree should focus on tradition rather than religion, or if the tree should exist at all.

rockefeller-center-xmas-tree

The Tree at Rockefeller Center

Perhaps the most iconic Christmas tree in the United States is found in New York City at Rockefeller Center. The tree is positioned just above the famous ice skating rink and immediately front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The Rockefeller Center tree has been a tradition for over eighty years and its lighting has become a major entertainment event. The 2013 tree is 76 feet tall, weighs twelve tons, features over 45,000 lights, and is topped with a nine-foot wide Swarovski star.

angels

Two rows of trumpeting angels are installed along the plaza, forming a lane that frames the tree beautifully when viewed from Fifth Avenue. The lighting ceremony has now become a televised event with celebrity hosts and performers; the 2013 lighting ceremony featured Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, the Radio City Rockettes, and many others.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

Here in Greensboro, residents of the Sunset Hills neighborhood create an unique annual holiday spectacle: a neighborhood-wide display of lighted “ball” decorations. This local tradition began with Jonathan Smith’s family, residents of Sunset Hills, about sixteen years ago. The balls are homemade, constructed from chicken wire shaped into spheres, then wrapped with a strand of Christmas lights. The balls hang from tree branches, some nearly thirty feet off the ground.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

The video below features the 2008 display and Smith discussing how the tradition started.

Lighted Christmas Balls In Greensboro, North Carolina

Have you seen any of these holiday spectacles in person? What role does spectacle play in your holiday celebrations?

A Holiday Spectacle

by Marc Williams

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade processes through Times Square.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving with the smell of sage wafting through the house as my mother began a long day of cooking and baking. Of course my morning was spent in front of the television watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And now that I have children of my own, Thanksgiving has come full circle: I’m the one doing the cooking and my son, now four years old, is the one enjoying the parade.

The Macy’s parade has been around since 1924, when Macy’s department store on 34th Street decided to hold a parade as a marketing ploy. Macy’s employees dressed in costumes—clowns, cowboys, and the like—and walked with Central Park Zoo animals on a six-mile route through Manhattan. The parade was a success for Macy’s, became an annual event, and is now the most popular holiday parade in America. The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California and Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans are also major parades, and communities all over the country stage parades in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, fall harvests, and other occasions. Parades big and small are commonplace, yet many viewers probably don’t realize that modern parades owe a debt both to theatre and to the church.

During the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in Europe began dramatizing events from the Bible in an attempt to share the liturgy with a growing population that was largely illiterate. Church interiors were utilized in these liturgical dramas, with the central nave area of the basilica used for spectators and the columns along either side of the nave were used to separate different “stages,” or “mansions,” as they were called. The audience would walk from one mansion to the next, one mansion featuring the Garden of Eden, the next featuring Noah’s Ark, and so on. Interestingly, this staging technique—in which the spectator moves in and out of different acting areas—is still used today. It’s the same staging technique encountered in a “haunted house” attraction, and is also used by theme parks. Disney’s famous It’s a Small World After All and Pirates of the Caribbean rides use the same concept, although the audience is seated in a boat that moves through the attraction.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III forbade the clergy from participating in these liturgical plays. The performances were enormously popular but the Pope believed the scripture was becoming obscured by scenery, costumes, special effects, and scripts that were becoming increasingly colloquial.

The plays, known as “mysteries,” then moved outside the church. In some cases, the plays were held immediately outside the church—right on the church steps. Large stone basilicas with impressive steps and entryways could make for impressive theatrical backdrops. In some towns, performances moved to a town square. The image below from the Valenciennes Passion shows a town square that has several “mansions” built into its existing architecture for the performance of a 25-day long play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. The city’s own gates appear to be used as the gates to Jerusalem, with a setting constructed for the temple, another for the sea, and so on.

Setting for the Valenciennes Passion, 1547.

In other towns, the spectators were spread out, with groups seated on risers in different areas of the town. For these mystery plays, the sets, costumes, and actors moved from one audience to the next on pageant wagons. These impressive devices could “dock” with an existing stage platform, providing a custom backdrop for the performance. Also, the wagon would also carry all the props and costumes needed to tell the story. These pageant wagons are the forerunners of our modern parade floats; the audience sits or stands as the small staging area moves to them. The performance occurs, then the float moves along the designated route.

An English pageant wagon.

Spectacle was of tremendous importance during the mystery plays. Because the church was no longer the organizing force for the performances, the plays were presented by other groups in the community. In England, for instance, the responsibility was given to the local craft guilds. Typically, each guild was responsible for one story: finding the actors, building the scenery and costumes, and paying their share of the overall expenses for the event. The guilds were typically assigned a story related to their expertise: the shipwrights would present Noah, the goldsmiths would present the three kings, since they could supply gold crowns, the blacksmiths might be in charge of nailing Christ to the cross, and so on. The guilds took tremendous pride in their contributions and their efforts were dazzling: some wagons featured trap doors for surprising entrances and exits, others featured elaborate scenic detail that was stunningly lifelike, while some featured flying effects and other stage magic.

Indeed the same is true today at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. New balloons and floats are added each year, and these new efforts are consistently focused on providing a new spectacle that has never been seen in a parade before. In this year’s parade, for example, Cirque du Soleil provided a new float that is the biggest in parade history, complete with acrobats and contortionists—it was like a little self-contained circus.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Dreamseeker” float in the 2013 Macy’s Parade.

In my BLS course Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss modern-day spectacles like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and historical spectacles like the mystery plays. We consider why we are so consistently impressed by the “wow factor” that spectacles offer, and wonder what draws each of us individually toward these spectacles. For me, the Macy’s Parade takes me back to my childhood home, watching television in my pajamas with the smell of sage in the air. What memories do you associate with the Macy’s Parade? Or do you have another favorite holiday spectacle?

Jumping the Shark

By Marc Williams

The Fonz

In 1977, the television sit-com Happy Days began its fifth season with an audacious episode that was different in tone from its first four years of episodes, it took the viewers by surprise. Happy Days’ appeal had always been its nostalgic attitude toward the 1950’s and the likable, down-to-earth characters around whom each episode focused. The motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing heartthrob, Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli–played by Henry Winkler–was the epitome of cool and remains an icon of coolness today.

Unexpectedly, in the fifth season’s premiere episode, the Fonz decided to prove his bravery by jumping over a shark while water skiing. It was a baffling moment in television history. The first four years of the show had nothing to do with water skiing and the Fonz had never been the kind of character who needed to “prove himself” to anyone. More superficially, viewers weren’t accustomed to seeing the Fonz in swimming trunks. It was an odd episode after which the series could never be the same–a point of no return. This moment gave birth to the phrase “jumping the shark,” a term coined by John Hein to describe the moment when a television show betrays its origins–perhaps suggesting that the writers have run out of ideas. Often, shows are thought to have jumped the shark when a key character leaves the show, or if an important new character is introduced. Hein started a website dedicated to the phenomenon, where readers can debate the moment in which their favorite television shows jumped the shark. Hein sold the website in 2006 but the site is still active.

Here’s a clip (via YouTube) of Fonzie’s famous shark jump:

The website argues that virtually any creative endeavor can jump the shark: musical groups, movies, advertising and political campaigns, and so on. But can an educational television program jump the shark? Some have argued that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has done so.

For years, Shark Week has provided viewers fascinating documentaries about recent shark research and has captured some truly eye-popping footage. For example, the images captured in a 2001 Shark Week episode entitled “Air Jaws” captured some of the most stunning nature film I’ve ever seen–images of enormous great white sharks leaping completely out of the water, attacking seals and seal decoys. Like nearly everything one expects to see on The Discovery Channel, Shark Week is usually both entertaining and educational.

Clip from Air Jaws

Click to view a clip from “Air Jaws”

When watching that spectacular 2001 episode, I wondered to myself–”how will Discovery Channel ever top this?” What shark footage could possibly compete with these amazing images? How will they possibly attract viewers next year? Not surprisingly, Discovery Channel dedicated many of its subsequent Shark Week shows over the past twelve years to more footage of jumping great whites–and not much else. Perhaps the producers acknowledged that indeed, they simply couldn’t surpass the spectacle of “Air Jaws.” Until the 2013 installment of Shark Week, that is.

“Megalodon” was the centerpiece of Shark Week 2013, a documentary about the prehistoric shark that paleontologists believe grew to lengths of 60 feet or more. I’ve always been fascinated by megalodon; my older brother was a shark enthusiast when we were young and I vividly recall him showing me a photo of fossilized megalodon jaws he found in a book–I couldn’t believe that such an enormous creature ever lived. I was awed by the thought of it. Naturally, when I read that Discovery Channel was featuring Megalodon in its 2013 Shark Week series, I set my DVR.

The episode begins with some amateur video footage from a fishing party aboard a boat off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The amateur footage ends with some fearsome crashes and the viewer then learns that the footage was recovered from the boat’s wreckage–and that none of the young passengers survived. When my wife and I watched the episode, we both thought the footage looked a little too polished to be amateur footage. My wife said she didn’t remember hearing anything on the news of a horrible boating accident and I didn’t remember such a story either.

Viewers were then introduced to a self-proclaimed expert in mysterious oceanic events: a dubious specialty, held by a man who was perhaps a bit too comfortable in front of the documentarian’s camera.

As the program continues, viewers learn that megalodon may not be extinct after all! And of course, in true Shark Week fashion, there was some stunning footage that offered tantalizing glances of what might be a live megalodon in the ocean. The ocean is a huge place, we’re reminded, and new species are discovered every year. The coelacanth, for instance, was thought to be extinct for over 60 million years until a live specimen was discovered in 1938. Even very large animals like giant squid and megamouth sharks have only been recently captured on film, so the evidence supporting a modern-day megalodon simply can’t be dismissed.

Clip from Megalodon

Click to view a clip from “Megalodon”

The program was extremely entertaining and was easily the most exciting Shark Week show I’ve seen since “Air Jaws.” And not surprisingly, “Megalodon” received the highest ratings in the history of Shark Week. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, it was all a hoax. Like Animal Planet’s 2012 documentary on mermaids, all of the nature footage and expert testimonies were fabrications. My wife and I hadn’t heard about the vanished boating party on the news because, of course, there never was a boating party. There was virtually nothing true about Discovery Channel’s “Megalodon.” But many viewers were fooled, and subsequently criticized the network for misleading and humiliating the audience.

What do you think? By airing a work of fiction–and presenting it as truth–did Shark Week jump the shark? Have the producers run out of ideas? Have they abandoned Shark Week’s reputation? Or were Shark Week viewers naive all along for seeking education through commercial television?

Making Magic on Broadway

By Marc Williams

The Tony Awards are Broadway theatre’s version of an Oscar, recognizing the highest levels of achievement in commercial theatre. This year’s nominees include a revival of Pippin, a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1972 and hasn’t been seen on Broadway since that original production.

Pippin poster

Pippin was conceived by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who is best known Godspell and, more recently, the Broadway mega-hit Wicked. Schwartz began working on Pippin as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and after achieving a seemingly overnight success with Godspell in 1971, the 23-year old Schwartz and his collaborator, Roger O. Hirson, were able to find a producer willing to put Pippin on Broadway.

Like Schwartz’ earlier hit Godspell, Pippin had great popular appeal. The scores to these musicals contain pop/rock songs that became crossover hits on top-40 radio. The original Off-Broadway cast recording of Godspell’sDay By Day” climbed to the #13 position on the Billboard Top Singles chart, while songs from Pippin were recorded by the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson (solo), the Supremes, and Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield. On stage, Pippin was a bona fide Broadway hit, running over 1900 performances–one of the longest runs in Broadway history. An interesting side note to Pippin’s successful run was its very effective marketing campaign; Pippin was the first Broadway musical to use clips from the production on a television advertisement. The famous “Manson Trio” dance number was featured in this minute-long television commercial that is credited for generating much of the musical’s early ticket sales (pardon the water mark):

Ben Vereen as the Leading Player in Bob Fosse’s 1972 production of Pippin.

While Pippin enjoyed popular success, the script and score were not embraced by the influential New York critics. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes called Pippin a “trite and uninteresting story with aspirations to a seriousness it never for one moment fulfills.” He similarly wrote of Schwartz’s score, “It is a commonplace set to rock music, and I must say I found most of music somewhat characterless.” However, Barnes praised the production as a whole, noting its inventive staging and choreography, the work of the stage designers, and the triumphant performance by Ben Vereen as the Leading Player.

Bob Fosse.

Barnes and other critics took notice of Bob Fosse’s work in particular, which deemphasized the script’s naïve and passive title character and focused on the dark, dangerous agenda of the musical’s ringmaster, Vereen’s Leading Player.

Stephen Schwartz.

Rather than Schwartz’ story of a young man’s search for fulfillment, Fosse viewed Pippin’s plot as the story of a young man being seduced into self-destruction. In an effort to support the theme of seduction, the production visually evoked burlesque and carnival performance, highlighting themes of sexual exploration and discovery. The 24-year old Schwartz, whose musical influences were more James Taylor and less Jimi Hendrix, perhaps had not imagined his musical with such a seedy underbelly and as a result, the rehearsals for Pippin were famously contentious, with Fosse, Schwartz, and Hirson battling for control of the production’s tone. Eventually, Fosse banned Schwartz and Hirson from attending rehearsals!

Some criticism of Schwartz and Hirson’s work is warranted. The story is fragmented and the central action unclear. The musical’s original ending is among the most jarring and dissatisfying endings one is likely to find in a musical. Structurally, Pippin is incomplete and any production of Pippin seems to require additional directorial focus in order to hold the entire script and score together into a cohesive evening of theatre. Fosse seemingly knew this, and his work earned him a Tony Award in 1973 for Best Director of a Musical; Fosse also won a Tony Award for his iconic Pippin choreography.

Diane Paulus

Forty years after Fosse’s original production, a new production opened on Broadway April 25, 2013. Directed by Diane Paulus, the new production has been called a “natural extension” of Fosse’s, a Pippin for a 21st century audience. If Fosse’s production was suggestive, Paulus’ production seems to opt for excess. Fosse’s dancing ensemble, for instance, was conceived as a group of traveling burlesque clowns. Paulus’ vision for these traveling players is less burlesque, more Cirque du Soleil. In fact, Paulus’ production employs a troupe of Canadian acrobats that creates a sense of grand spectacle throughout the show. If Fosse’s production is a story of seduction, Paulus’ production seems a story of astonishment. Here is a glimpse of Paulus’ new production:

Much has changed on Broadway since Fosse’s Pippin opened in 1972. The 1980’s was an era of musical spectacles, lavish musicals like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon that boasted some of the most eye-popping visual effects ever seen on stage. More recent musicals like Wicked and

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark have continued that tradition into the 21st century. In my BLS course, Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss musical spectacles and how 21st century audiences have come to expect a certain degree of “eye appeal” at a Broadway musical. With many of these musical spectacles, the stage designs are frankly more impressive than the scripts the designs are attempting to support. Some of these productions could be called “style without substance,” in spite of their commercial success. In the case of Paulus’ Pippin, it seems the director is using the fad of musical spectacles not to distract from the script’s flaws but rather to enhance the script’s central action and deliver a story about amazement to an audience that demands to be amazed. Given the positive reviews and ten Tony Award nominations Paulus’ production received, one wonders if Pippin is poised to be a Broadway hit yet again.

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An interesting “Making of…” feature published on the New York Times’ website, demonstrating how Paulus and her collaborators conceptualized Pippin’s famous opening number, “Magic to Do.”

Do You Hear the People Sing?

By Marc Williams

On Christmas day, Hollywood’s newest movie musical will open at theatres nationwide. Les Misérables is based on Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer’s hit stage musical, which of course was based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. The English version of the stage musical opened in London in 1985, on Broadway in 1987, and was eventually translated into twenty-one languages and performed in over forty countries. Along with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and the Phantom of the OperaLes Misérables can be considered among the most commercially successful stage musicals of all time.

Hit stage musicals have often been adapted for the screen. In recent years, Chicago, Hairspray, Rent, Dreamgirls, and The Producers were captured on film. It’s therefore no surprise that a mega-hit like Les Misérables was destined for the silver screen. However, one important aspect of this latest movie musical demonstrates a significant departure from most of its predecessors: the singing.

Historically, the vocal tracks for these movie musicals are recorded weeks or even months in advance of filming. This method gives the director, musical supervisor, sound editors and engineers a clean audio sample that sounds nearly perfect. Consider this clip from the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis:

You’ll see that as Judy Garland dances, the heels on her shoes contact the wooden floor just beyond the rug. This dancing would surely create a “tapping” sound but of course we don’t hear this tapping in the clip because the audio was recorded long before the scene was filmed. Likewise, there are a number of actors in the shot; a single cough or sneeze from any of these actors would ruin the audio sample if it were recorded live. Additionally, if a musical number features an actor moving from place to place, the cameras also have to move–this means that the clanking of equipment or shuffling of feet could also destroy a live shot. Finally, it is physically difficult to sing and dance at the same time. Singers engaged in brisk physical activity, even light dancing, can easily find themselves out of breath. Recording the vocals in the studio eliminates all of these problems.

However, recording vocals in advance creates two important complications for the singing actor. First is the technical challenge of lip-synching. In the clip above, Garland must dance and engage with the other actors, all while she is attempting to flawlessly match the vocals she had recorded in a studio many weeks earlier. It’s difficult enough to sing, dance, and act at the same time–simultaneously lip-synching is a near-impossible challenge.

A more extreme example can be seen here, a dance number from High School Musical.  The choreography is more intense than the Judy Garland clip and the viewer can easily see the singers struggling to mimic their prerecorded vocals.

Notice also at the end of the first verse, sung by Zac Efron, that he is doubled over, getting a playful rub on the head from another actor. Amazingly, his singing is unaffected by this physical posture. This example introduces the second problem with prerecorded audio for musical films: lack of spontaneity. If the actors behave spontaneously on camera, their physical action almost certainly will not match the audio; this creates the dubbing issues seen in the clip from High School Musical. On the other end of the spectrum, actors attempting to perfectly match the prerecorded vocals will almost certainly disengage from the acting moment and may even have to adjust choreography in order to truly match the vocals–the audio might sound “pretty” but the song will look dull on the screen.

For these reasons, director Tom Hooper decided to record the songs for Les Misérables live on the set. It’s an incredibly innovative approach that eschews nearly a century of movie musical tradition. This “behind the scenes” video provides a look at the techniques used to capture live audio.

As I read about the film and how the audio was recorded, I thought about the audio presentations my students give in Shakespeare Off the Page, one of the courses I teach in the UNCG BLS program. I ask students to give online presentations by recording their voice and submitting that audio file for evaluation. When I first taught the course, I was most interested in evaluating 1) Is the student’s argument convincing? and 2) Can I hear and understand the student’s voice? But as I’ve continued teaching the course, I’ve started thinking more like Tom Hooper. What I really want to hear in a presentation is the speaker’s personality–their interest in the topic, their engagement with the material, and their willingness to be spontaneous rather than “perfect.” After all, if one is simply going to recite text, what’s the point of speaking aloud? It’s a wonder that it’s taken Hollywood so long to figure this out.

Spiders and Toads

By Marc Williams

Laurence Olivier as Richard III.

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
~Richard III (Act 1, scene 1).

King Richard III is among Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Based on the real-life Richard of Glouster, Shakespeare’s title character murders his way to the throne, bragging about his deeds and ambitions to the audience in some of Shakespeare’s most delightful soliloquies. Shakespeare’s Richard is famously depicted as a hunchback, and uses his physical deformity as justification for his evil ambitions:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

For stage actors, Richard III is a tremendously challenging role. On one hand, he is pure evil—but he must also be charming and likeable. If you aren’t familiar with the play, its second scene features Richard successfully wooing Lady Anne as she grieves over her husband’s corpse! And Richard is her husband’s killer! Shakespeare’s Richard is both evil and smooth.

Simon Russell Beale as Richard III.

Actors must also deal with the issue of Richard’s physical disability. For instance, Richard is described as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad,” an image that inspired Simon Russell Beale’s 1992 performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company, while Antony Sher’s iconic 1984 interpretation was inspired by the phrase “bottled spider,” an insult hurled at Richard in Act I.

Anthony Sher’s “bottled spider” interpretation of  Richard III.

While much of the historical record disputes Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a maniacal mass-murderer, relatively little is known about Richard’s disability. According to the play, Richard is a hunchback with a shriveled arm. However, there is little evidence to support these claims.

This uncertainty may soon change. Archaeologists in Leicester, England have uncovered the remnants of a chapel that was demolished in the 16th century. That chapel, according to historic accounts of Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, was Richard’s burial site. Not only have researchers found the church, but they have also located the choir area, where Richard’s body was allegedly interred. And indeed, last week, the archaeologists uncovered bones in the choir area:

If the archeologists have indeed found the remains of Richard III, the famous king was definitely not a hunchback. It appears he suffered from scoliosis—a lateral curve or twist of the spine—but not from kyphosis, which is a different kind of spinal curvature that leads to a pronounced forward-leaning posture. As Dr. Richard Taylor explains in the video, the excavated remains suggest this person would have appeared to have one shoulder slightly higher than the other as a result of scoliosis.

Interestingly, Ian McKellen’s performance as Richard III, captured in Richard Loncraine’s 1996 film, seems to capture the kind of physical condition described by Dr. Taylor, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. At the 6:45 mark in this video, one can see how McKellen dealt with Richard’s condition.

So it appears Shakespeare not only distorted historical details in Richard III, he also apparently distorted the title character’s shape. Of Shakespeare’s Richard, McKellen wrote:

Shakespeare’s stage version of Richard has erased the history of the real king, who was, by comparison, a model of probity. Canny Shakespeare may well have conformed to the propaganda of the Tudor Dynasty, Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather having slain Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Shakespeare was not writing nor rewriting history. He was building on his success as thee young playwright of the Henry VI trilogy, some of whose monstrously self-willed men and women recur in Richard III.

It seems likely that Shakespeare wanted Richard to seem as evil as possible in order to flatter Queen Elizabeth I, depicting her grandfather as England’s conquering hero. But why distort Richard’s physical disability as well?

In describing Richard’s body shape, it is difficult to ascertain what Shakespeare’s motives might have been and perhaps even more difficult to assess his attitudes toward physical difference in general. For example, in my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class in the BLS program, we discuss the issue of race in Othello, even though we don’t know much about what Shakespeare thought about race. Many scholars have investigated the subject of physical difference in Shakespeare, of course: there are papers on Richard’s spine, naturally, but also Othello’s seizures, Lavinia’s marginalization in Titus Andronicus after her hands and feet are severed, the depiction of blindness in King Lear, and even Hermia’s height in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And just as one must ask, “is Othello about race,” we might also ask, “is Richard III about shape?” I doubt many would argue that physical difference is the primary focus of Shakespeare’s Richard III, but it will be interesting to observe how the apparent discovery of Richard’s body will affect future performances of the play. Will actors continue to twist their bodies into “bottled spiders,” or will they focus on the historical Richard’s scoliosis—and perhaps ask why such vicious language is used to describe such a minor difference?

And the Oscar Goes To…

By Marc Williams

This Sunday, the Hollywood glitterati will turn out for its annual jubilee, the Academy Awards. While I’ve never been a fan of award shows (see my post from last summer regarding the Tony Awards), I certainly view an Oscar as the highest recognition in the entertainment industry. While lots of quality work is unrecognized by the Academy each year, I still regard an Oscar nomination as some validation of quality work.

In the decade or so after I finished high school,  I took that validation quite seriously. I made a point of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated films before the awards ceremony. I would definitely see all the Best Picture nominees but I tried to see the documentaries and foreign films too.Indeed I saw many terrific films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. In 1998, everybody saw Titanic (the Best Picture winner, among many other wins) but I hadn’t seen L.A. Confidential until after it received nine Oscar nominations. In 2004, it was a Best Director Oscar nomination for Fernando Meirelles that prompted me to view City of God–which I now count among my favorite films of all time.

When I first started trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, my motivation was largely snobbish. I felt I earned a certain cultural cache from seeing all of the “great” films of the year, especially the obscure films my friends hadn’t heard of. Admittedly, there were many times I forced myself to sit through movies in which I wasn’t remotely interested. In earning my status as a highly cultured individual, I figured I had to pay the price of boredom. I suffered through The Red Violin, The Gangs of New York, and many other Oscar nominated films, hating every minute of them.

Naturally, circumstances change. I can’t fit self-imposed boredom into my schedule anymore. Nowadays I find it exceedingly difficult to go to the movies at all. My wife and I try to watch films at home but that can be challenging with a two-year old asleep down the hall. Not surprisingly, we’ve fallen behind on all the movies we want to see–we’ve learned from experience that Netflix only allows users to put 500 movies in the DVD queue. I doubt we’ll ever catch up. The result of our changing circumstances is a need to prioritize our film viewing and spend time only with stories we find truly fascinating–the Netflix queue is getting pared down to the essentials and we make very careful choices when we are able to make a rare trip to the movie theatre.

Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year, I’ve seen half. In recent years, I’ve seen far fewer.

In 2009, I had only seen two of the eight nominated films at the time of the ceremony. This year, I’ve seen Hugo, The Artist, The Descendants, and Midnight in Paris. I doubt I will ever see Moneyball or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because I’m just not interested. And this, for me, is how the Oscars reflect my changing views on achieving “cultured” status. I’m not willing to endure disinterest in exchange for this status.

I’m convinced, however, that I’m not the only person who has consumed boring art for snobbish reasons. In fact, I believe many of us go to the theatre, museums, or obscure films with boredom as an objective: “If I can withstand this boredom for two hours, I’ve paid my cultural debt to society.” I agree the arts are vital to communities, to self-awareness, and communication but if the work isn’t engaging, interesting, or in some way entertaining, how valuable can it be?

I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in some of my BLS courses. My Eye Appeal students, for instance, are required to attend a live performance in their community. My hope is that the assignment will be fun–and for most of my students, this assignment is the highlight of the course. But sometimes, students attend events in which they clearly aren’t interested. Perhaps they are trying to impress me with their sophistication, attending a ballet or opera that they secretly despise, hoping to manufacture some cultural credibility?

Have you ever suffered boredom for the sake of feeling cultured?

Standing on Ceremony

By Marc Williams

In the theatre, opening night is a special occasion.  Months, sometimes years, of work are finally complete and an audience is welcomed into the space to not only witness but also participate in the performance.  As a stage director, my work is officially complete on opening night—and this is true for many of the collaborators involved in a production as well.  In fact, for a lot of theatre folk, opening night is about the only time they “dress up” to go to the theatre. It is a night of celebration.

On November 7, I attended a very special opening night.  Standing on Ceremony, which opened that night at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City, is a collection of eight short plays by some of the country’s finest playwrights.  What’s unusual about this world-premiere event is that Standing on Ceremony simultaneously premiered in more than fifty other theatres at the exact same moment.  I wasn’t in New York for opening night—I was right here in Greensboro on the campus of Guilford College.

The Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moises Kaufman, co-produced this event, for which eight writers each contributed a play on the issue of same-sex marriage.  As the New York cast was preparing these plays for the official opening night performance, other theatre companies around the country—and even a few international companies—were provided scripts so they too could present Standing on Ceremony in their community on opening night.  All of these performances began and ended at the same time, so audiences across the country and world were discovering these new plays at the same time.

In New York, a portion of the production’s proceeds will benefit Freedom to Marry and other organizations dedicated to marriage equality.  The other theatres across the country followed suit, taking donations from audiences to benefit local organizations dedicated to marriage equality in their community. Representatives from EqualityNC, for example, attended the Guilford College performance, using the event to recruit volunteers, distribute literature about North Carolina’s upcoming same-sex marriage ban amendment vote, and ask voters to pledge to attend the primary in May 2012, when the amendment will be on the ballot.

When it at its best, theatre can serve as a lens, allowing that particular audience to examine itself not only as individuals but also as a community.  Naturally, each audience and each community is unique, which means that every production of every play is received in unique way.  This is the reason I tell my BLS classes that a production of a play is a simultaneous expression of two societies: that of the author and that of the audience.  While the author’s society is fixed in history, the audience’s society is always changing—from place to place or year to year.

The performance of Standing on Ceremony I attended was a great example of how this phenomenon works.  New York is one of six places in the United States that permits gay marriage, while North Carolina is one of forty-four places in the United States that forbids same-sex marriage—and the upcoming constitutional amendment vote could make the existing laws even more restrictive. The audiences in New York and North Carolina, therefore, have different experiences with the issue of same-sex marriage and would certainly have differing emotional and intellectual responses to the performance.

Standing on Ceremony has a distinctly pro-same-sex marriage theme—I’d venture to guess that nearly everyone who attended the play was in agreement with its political agenda.  As I sat in the theatre watching the plays and contemplating the issue, I thought about audiences in Iowa and New York, and other states where same-sex marriage is legal, and wondered how they were responding to the plays. Surely there were legally married same-sex couples in attendance!  Were they proud?  Hopeful?  But I also thought of audiences in Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, and all across the South—where amendments banning same-sex marriage have already been approved.  What would be their reaction to a play about an issue that was already decided in their state by a constitutional ban?  And naturally, my thoughts turned back to North Carolina.  On November 7, 2011, the audience seemed hopeful.  How might we respond to a production of Standing on Ceremony twelve months from now? Still hopeful?

Recalculating

By Marc Williams

Anyone in a car with a GPS knows the phrase “recalculating.” Once you program your destination and begin your journey, the GPS expects you to follow the path with unwavering trust. The slightest turn from the designated route—a pit stop, a scenic detour, a bite to eat—will cause the GPS to recalculate the route. If I miss a turn and get frustrated, the Garmin’s voice is steady and confident, never losing sight of the path. It’s oddly comforting to know that someone in the car can keep their cool. Interestingly, on my Garmin system, and on all of the GPS devices I’ve encountered in other cars, the voice that calmly says, “recalculating” is always female. Is that merely a coincidence?

CNN.com’s Brandon Griggs recently wrote about the new iPhone 4S feature, Siri,

and its distinctly female voice. Griggs notes that female voices are far more common in talking devices than male voices, and provides some interesting theories on the various reasons why talking computers tend to be female. For instance, Griggs cites Clifford Nass of Stanford University:

iPhone's Siri

“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” said Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”

HAL 9000 (From Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Another theory suggests that Hollywood uses male computer voices in suspense and thriller movies to create a sound of “menace,” so perhaps we find the idea of female computers to be more less menacing.

Or the historical theory is that WWII aviators relied on females for navigation, since their voices were easily distinguished from the male voices of the other pilots.

In many BLS courses, including my arts courses, gender roles and gender identity are discussed and debated at length. In fact, last week, my “Big Plays, Big Ideas” class was discussing gender attitudes on war in our examination of the Greek comedy Lysistrata.

So what does the trend of female computers say about gender attitudes on technology today?

Siri in action: