Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre

ENG 242: Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of May the Fourth

What links English 242 to the British actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller? The answer is three characters, two that we reflected on when we moved online in March and a third that’s the focus for the final week of the course, which begins today.

Both Cumberbatch and Miller have played the role of Sherlock Holmes; Cumberbatch portrayed him in the BBC series Sherlock (2010-17), set in present-day London, and Miller played him in the CBS series Elementary, which transformed the Scotland Yard detective into an investigator in present-day New York City. In between the launches of those two series, Cumberbatch and Miller performed together in the Royal National Theatre production of Frankenstein (2011). The two actors alternated the roles of Victor and the Creature and shared the Olivier Award (the equivalent of Broadway’s Tony) for their performances. The pairs of photographs that follow feature Cumberbatch and Miller as Holmes and in their dual roles in Frankenstein.

Top: (L-R) Cumberbatch and Miller as Sherlock Holmes / CBS, BBC; Bottom: Trading the roles of Victor and the Creature in Frankenstein / Royal National Theatre

Playwright Nick Dear‘s Frankenstein and the series Sherlock and Elementary are but three of the many adaptations that attest to the enduring appeal of the narratives that bookend our semester. The popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective and his many incarnations in film and television inspired the first of three options for your blog response this week.

Option One:

Have you watched Sherlock, Elementary, or one of the Holmes films featuring Robert Downey, Jr. as the title character? If so, address the similarities and differences between the portrayal of the detective on screen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s portrayal of him in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” If you write about Sherlock or Elementary, don’t focus on the obvious difference in the time setting, ditto for the location (New York City) of Elementary. Include both the title of the series/film and the actor’s name in your response.

Option Two:

The Adventure of the Speckled Band” belongs to the subgenre of detective story known as the locked room mystery, in which a murder occurs in a closed space where the perpetrator seemingly vanishes into thin air, and there are few, if any, suspects. Which detail about the locked room mystery of Julia Stoner’s death, or her bedroom where the murder took place, do you find most intriguing?

Option Three:

In The Norton Anthology of British Literature, the editor notes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle named “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” as his favorite Sherlock Homes story and that “[m]any fans have agreed; readers’ polls over the years have frequently rated ‘The Speckled Band’ as the best Holmes story of all” (920). If you have you read another Sherlock Holmes story that you favor over “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” write a response that addresses its merits. If you’ve read other Holmes stories and prefer “The Speckled Band,” explain why.

Extra Credit:

It’s no mystery why the force is with us today, but how does May the fourth figure in one of the works of Victorian literature that we’ve studied? In your response, cite the two lines that together solve the mystery. Follow each quotation with a parenthetical citation.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates.

Work Cited

Robson, Catherine. Biographical Note: “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1859-1930.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W.W. Norton, 2018. pp. 920-21.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Follow-Up, Introduction to Poetry

Drama Follow-Up

Thank you for all of your thoughtful and detailed feedback on the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath. Before we turn from drama to poetry, I offer these follow-up notes:

Untitled Monologue

  • Mia noted the problematic detail of Deen’s parole. I didn’t mention that issue in my introductory remarks because it’s one with an easy fix. The officer needs a motive for his encounter with Deen, but that motive needn’t be a parole violation. A confrontation prompted by an unrelated minor offense—such as a speeding ticket or a shoplifting arrest—would add to the monologue’s irony. That said, who other than an officer might prompt Deen’s rant?
  • Brendan, Zane, and Brandy recommended delaying Deen’s revelations about her role in her family’s tragedies. I addressed the subject of sequence in my previous post for the same reasons that Brendan, Zane, and Brandy mentioned. If the audience is introduced to Deen as an unlikable young woman but one who is nevertheless a devoted friend to Carol, the revelation that Deen is responsible for her parents’ death and her brother’s paralysis will transform her from mildly annoying to morally reprehensible. The structure of that transformation might be similar to that of Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” as Brendan suggested.
  • Trevor recommended “Six Feet Under” and “An Inconvenient Inheritance” as possible titles. Is there a line of Deen’s—such as “So here’s the thing”—that might serve as the title?

The Story of Shabath

  • Trevor suggested that the monorail could appear as a projected image in the background, and that sound effects and props could differentiate Shabath Aizwald’s memories. Those recommendations remind us that playwrights’ scripts—unlike creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry—are starting points for collaboration (among the director, the actor/s, and the technical crew); it’s important to imagine how the story might move from page to stage. Trevor’s mention of props and sound effects leads me to Mia‘s observation about the number of acts and scenes
  • If stage hands costumed as citizens of Laghaz entered and exited with the props that signal shifts from one memory to the next, those visual cues could enable the monologue to unfold as one seamless scene.
  • Brennan, Zane, Mia, and Brandy observed that the audience learns more about the kingdom of Laghaz than they do about Shabath himself. What motivated him to found Faya? What in particular was painful about his regenerative process? What were the physical and emotional costs, and how might Shabath convey those through his words and actions?
  • Mia noted Shabath’s potential drug problem. Whether the elixir he injects is medicinal or detrimental to his health, its effects could develop his character and serve as a source of tension.
  • Brennan‘s words “the rain . . . mixed with a man pondering his life on a high-speed monorail” brings to mind  Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel that the writer might find instructive to read, or reread, with an eye toward the rendering of the speech of the bounty hunter Rick Deckard.

To the writers of both scripts, I recommend Jane Wagner‘s play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It’s a one-woman show featuring a series of monologues linked by the narrator, Trudy, a deranged bag lady who befriends alien visitors who are studying Earth as “a planet still in its puberty” (136). I recommend it to the writer of the untitled monologue for the characters’ diction and speech patterns. To the writer of The Story of Shabbath, I recommend examining how Wagner’s monologues develop the individual characters while also addressing social problems.

Work Cited

Wagner, Jane. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. 1985. Harper & Row, 1986.


Introduction to Poetry

As we turn from drama to poetry, consider again Janet Burroway’s, Carolyn Kizer’s, and Theodore Roethke’s observations about the similarities between the two genres:

Her [Carolyn Kizer’s] mentor Theodore Roethke . . . advised thinking of a poem ‘as a three-act play, where you move from one impulse to the next, and then there is the final breath, which is the summation of the whole.’ Kizer points out that Roethke’s poem ‘I knew a Woman’ (p. 127) contains the line ‘She taught me turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand,’ which is ‘the essence of the dramatic structure. It’s what a long poem has to do. It doesn’t require physical action, but there has to be some mental or emotional movement that carries through the poem.’ (313-14)

If a poem mimics dramatic structure and involves movement, it will need, like a story or drama, to achieve conclusion. In Roethke’s description, this achievement is the ‘final breath,’ or, in his line above the ‘and Stand’ of the poem. (314)

In Chapter 10 of Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway includes three self-reflexive poems about language and writing (319-21). If you haven’t chosen a subject for your workshop poem/s, consider writing a poem that focuses on language or one of your own pieces of writing, another poem or a work of prose.

You might also try writing an ekphrastic poem: one about or inspired by another work of art. “Overblown,” the sample poem that I posted for you on Blackboard, is an ekphrastic poem that I wrote based on Momoyo Torimitsu’s Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable (the giant inflated pink rabbit in the photo) for an Art of Poetry Catawba Valley event at the Hickory Museum of Art.

For additional models and sources of inspiration, I encourage you to reread these poems in Imaginative Writing:

  • “I Knew a Woman” by Theodore Roethke (127)
  • “Nude Interrogation” by Yusef Komunyakaa (156)
  • “A Story about the Body” by Robert Hass (187)
  • “Columbine High School/Littleton, CO” by Albert Goldbarth (188)
  • “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin (188-89)
  • “The Hammock” by Li-Young Lee (189-90)
  • “The One Girl at the Boys Party” by Sharon Olds (312-13)

Also consider reading Louise Glück‘s “Gretel in the Darkness” as well as her poems posted on the Poetry Foundation website.

Since you are working on your poetry workshop assignment this week, you are not required to post a comment in response to this post, but I strongly encourage you to post one of the following as a brief response:

  • Any other poems in Imaginative Writing that you recommend to your classmates as models or sources of inspiration
  • A link to a poem that you admire and would encourage your classmates to read
  • Any of Janet Burroway‘s “Try This” exercise that have been helpful to you as you’ve drafted your poem/s

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Work Cited

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing. 4th ed. Pearson, 2014.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 3

Welcome to our third drama workshop session, and thank you for your thoughtful feedback on The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound. Before we turn to the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath, I offer these follow-up notes:

The Slow Decline 

  • Trevor mentioned the jail break in the sixth paragraph as a possible alternate starting point. How might Mr. Castillo’s story unfold between the narration of the jail break, which was “a rather profitable venture” and the change in gun restrictions when the Castillo organization’s “profits plummeted”? In other words, how might a riches-to-rags sequence framed by those events affect the play’s momentum?
  • Brendan, Zane, Brandy, and Mia all noted the lack of development of Mr. Castillo’s relationship with his father. The detail that he is “quiet” and the writer’s choice of having Mr. Castillo address his grandfather, but not his father, in the conclusion may serve to indicate a gulf between father and son. Was it a relationship that was too difficult for the son to put into words? If so, what in his speech or actions might convey that difficulty?
  • The question of details–what to leave in and what to leave out–leads me to a question that Mia raised: “What made the main character unsuitable for the job while his father and grandfather ran things so seamlessly?” The answer may lie in something else that Mia mentioned, the moment when Mr. Castillo reveals that as a young man he contemplated running away from the family business. That’s the moment I had in mind when I posed this question: What other obstacles, internal or external, might complicate the delivery of his story?

Monologue from Bound 

  • Trevor remarked that it was admirable that the writer chose to begin at the end of the narrator’s story and focus on the mechanics of the journey.
  • Brennan, Mia, Zane, and Brandy noted the number of unanswered questions in the monologue. Zane also noted the apparent inconsistency in the narrator’s mental state. How might the writer convey through the narrator’s speech and actions that his consistent inconsistencies make him dangerous to the gods, or to himself, or to both?
  • Brandy and Brennan both noted that the monologue felt like part of a larger piece–such as a character’s speech “halfway through a fantasy novel,” as Brennan mentioned. With that in mind, reading and comparing H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and the radio play adapted from the novel might be a useful exercise for the writer.

Rather than making additional reading recommendations tailored for the writers of The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound, I am offering one that’s relevant to all of us now: the recent New York Times article “Has Your Dystopian Play Come in Handy?,” which features snippets of conversations with playwrights who have authored plays about cataclysmic events and are now living through one themselves (as we all are).

Marisol, the first play addressed in the article, was written by José Rivera, author of Gas, the Persian Gulf War-era play that we read in Chapter 11 of Imaginative Writing. The eight other playwrights and plays featured in the article are these:

  • Anne Washburn, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (2013)
  • Jennifer Haley, Nether (2015)
  • Mac Rogers, The Honeycomb Trilogy (2015)
  • Penelope Skinner, The Ruins of Civilization (2016)
  • Zoe Kazan, After the Blast (2017)
  • Robert O’Hara, Mankind (2018)
  • Andrew R. Butler, Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future (2018)
  • Duncan Macmillan, Lungs (2020)

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments about the untitled monologue and The Story of Shabath. I offer them as suggestions only. I will address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our next session.

Untitled Monologue

  • In the second paragraph of the monologue, Deen reveals the inciting incident, the event that creates the situation in which she finds herself: “and then they died.” In the fifth paragraph, she first mentions her current obstacle: the officer to whom she is pleading her case. Consider how altering the order of the details that Deen presents would affect the monologue’s tension and the audience’s perceptions of Deen.
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes the importance of varying shorter lines with longer ones. In her words, “[a] change of pace, from a sharp series of shorter lines to a longer speech and back again, keeps the rhythm interesting” (338). The writer varies lines within paragraphs and also between paragraphs one and three, and again between paragraphs six and seven. What other paragraphs might be presented as shorter–perhaps even one-line–paragraphs?
  • What suggestions, if any, do you have for a title?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

The Story of Shabath

  • Consider the sequence of Shabath Aizwald’s recollections. How would moving what he recounts in 1:2 or 2:1 to 1:1 affect the tension?
  • What stage directions would clarify how the monorail figures in 1:1? Is it an actual set piece, an image projected on a scrim (a gauze cloth used as a screen or backdrop on stage), or does it figure solely as a diagetic sound?
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway observes that the inability and unwillingness at times to say what we mean “breaks the flow of the talk. This is especially true when emotions are heating up. People break off, interrupt themselves and each other. Use sentence fragments. Don’t always finish their . . . (338). Where might the writer break the flow of Shabath’s words to indicate an inner conflict? What memories might be difficult for him to recount?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

Post your two responses, twenty-five words or more each, as replies. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply. Post by midnight on Friday, April 17.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 2

Welcome to our second drama workshop session, and thank you for your thoughtful feedback on the first script, Twins of an Ill Fate. Before we turn to the next two scripts, The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound, I offer these follow-up notes:

  • Brandy, Brennan, and Zane mentioned the difficulty of distinguishing Harry from Henry. That’s a point that I’ll return to later in my notes.
  • Mia and Brennan both envisioned the story as one better suited for another medium, and Brennan added that there were moments that would be difficult if not impossible to stage. Since the realm of Twins of an Ill Fate lies somewhere between fourth wall realism and extreme theatricality, it might be staged with scene changes–as Mia suggested–and the Angel-to-Grim Reaper transformation could take place in a black-out or otherwise out of view.
  • Trevor recommended condensing the stage directions, and Brennan noted that some of them could be omitted. Often the characters’ words alone suffice. As I mentioned in our first session, in Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes that “good dialogue will convey most of its tone as an integral part of the lines, and when this is the case, there is no need to announce the tone of voice in a stage direction” (327).
  • Although Henry and Harry are easily confused on the page, seeing them on stage played by two actors, wearing clothes that aren’t identical, would enable the audience to distinguish Harry from Henry more easily. And in all likelihood they’d be played by actors who aren’t identical twins. That said, I’ll return to the what-if I asked in our first session and add another.
  • What if Henry and Harry were never on stage at the same time? What if everyone except the surviving twin–Sally, Margret, the Grim Reaper, and the audience–was left without an answer to the question, did one brother lie to save his own life?
  • Mia questioned the need for the twins to be identified as adopted, and Trevor mentioned Romulus and Remus, the adopted twins of Rome’s founding myth, and the opportunities that twin characters present, both as archetypes and subjects for exploration of nature and nurture. One reason for the revelation of the twins’ adoption–which Margret’s phone conversation provide–may be the existential crisis that crests with the realization that we are not who we thought we were, whether children of God or the children of the people we believed were our biological parents. I don’t know whether that’s what the writer intended, but the symbolic framework of the play leaves it open to that possibility.
  • One play I recommend to the writer is Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days, a dark comedy about a family preparing for Armageddon. The mother has visions of Jesus, and the daughter has visions of Stephen Hawking. One actor plays both Jesus and Hawking.

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments about The Slow Decline and the monologue from Bound. I offer them as suggestions only. I will address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our third session.


The Slow Decline

  • Mr. Castillo begins with his earliest memories and offers his story chronologically. Where else might he begin, and what might that alternate starting point contribute to his monologue?
  • What costume notes could place Mr. Castillo at odds with his words? Is there a stage lie? Is he wearing pajamas or or a pin-striped suit? How does that affect our reading of the line, “[t]he doctors say I don’t have much time left”?
  • The tape recorder’s breakdown thwarts Mr. Castillo’s plan. What other obstacles, internal or external, might complicate the delivery of his story?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?

Monologue from Bound

  • What is the risk of beginning, as this monologue does, with a solution rather than a problem?
  • Where might the writer use italics for emphasis? David Ives’ play The Philadelphia (see Imaginative Writing, 158-64) uses italics effectively in the conversation between the characters Al and Mark. Imagine the narrator emphasizing “finally” when he repeats it, then imagine him emphasizing “god.” How does the change in emphasis affect your perception of the narrator’s stance?
  • Consider the stage lie again. Is the narrator reliable? What actions or gestures might reveal his reliability or lack thereof?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?
  • Post your two responses, twenty-five words or more each, as replies. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply. Post by 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 9.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

ENG 126: Drama Workshop, Session 1

Welcome to our first drama workshop and our first WordPress gathering. Although I wouldn’t have chosen for us to work exclusively online as a community of writers, I value the opportunity that it will afford us, in May, to look back and weigh the merits of the two versions of our class: the before and the after–or, more accurately, the before and during (COVID-19 time).

The points I have included below are not ones that you’re required to address in your comments. I offer them as suggestions only. I will probably address some of them in the follow-up remarks that I’ll post at the beginning of our second session.

  • From the first line of the play, we know what one of the characters wants. What do other characters want? How do the conflicts among their desires advance the action?
  • In Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway notes that “good dialogue will convey most of its tone as an integral part of the lines, and when this is the case, there is no need to announce the tone of voice in a stage direction” (327). Are all of the tonal directions necessary? If not, which ones could be omitted?
  • The particular day, year, and hour of the setting are essential to the play. Are any other time or setting cues essential as well?
  • What is the symbolic significance of the ’87 black Chevy Silverado? What other set pieces take on symbolic significance?
  • What plays, if any–ones in Imaginative Writing or others that you’ve read–would you recommend to the writer as models or possible sources of inspiration?
  • And lastly, some what ifs: What if Harry and Henry were never on stage at the same time? What if Sally was alone with Harry at the beginning of scene 1? She could still make the same mistake, and Harry could still correct her–but then what?

Post your response of twenty-five words or more as a reply. If you address a point that one of your classmates has written in a previous reply, mention that classmate by name in your own reply.

You are welcome to post more than once.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

 

Posted in Teaching, Theatre

A Portrait Inscribed “To My Teacher”

When I saw Corey Mitchell’s picture posted on Facebook, I was reminded of how familiar he seemed to me. That was back in July, not long after the Hickory Community Theatre announced that he would direct the musical Hair. The show would open in September, which was still a spot in the distance back in mid-July. I was unpacking stacks of boxes, ones that had sat untouched in my house since 2013. After our lives were upended in 2012–when my husband was laid off–we relocated from Richmond, Virginia, to a house in Lenoir–a Dutch Colonial Revival that for all its beauty lacked the storage space provided by a two-car garage and a partially finished basement. The contents of my husband’s cubicle in Richmond had already found a home: the office of the newspaper editor (the job that had brought us to Lenoir). The shelves of books and drawers of files that had filled my own office towered precariously like a cardboard city in what was supposed to be the guest bedroom. Instead it was one of those rooms that you hope guests will never see.

 

Then after five years as an adjunct, I was offered a full-time teaching job. I had my own office again but not the time to move into it. So after the school year ended in May, I began to unpack the artifacts of my buried life and transport them to campus. As I opened box after box, fragments of those earlier years of teaching reentered my consciousness, including the image of a young man who appeared in my mind as a decades-younger version of Corey Mitchell, a young man I’d taught at UNC-Wilmington. Hadn’t I read that Corey had graduated from UNCW?–and didn’t I teach a Mitchell there?

Not long after that–a couple of days later, perhaps–I opened a box that contained all of my old grade books, all the way back to the first semester I taught, as a grad student, back in 1990. The gradebook that I used two years later at UNCW was the oldest in the stack, one passed down to me by my parents, an unused one pulled from one of their own file cabinets after they retired. The column for student names in that vintage Hall’s Class Record Book was so narrow that only the last names fit. I found what I was looking for between Lofton and Onuffer: Mitchell. I was relatively certain that it was Corey.

As the director of Hair at HCT, Corey was working closely with the theatre’s Artistic Director, Pam Livingstone, whom I knew from my own stage work there, so I sent her this email:

Corey Mitchell has looked familiar to me since I saw his face on the Tonys and in the news back in 2015, now I may know why. I read recently that he’s a graduate of UNC-Wilmington. I taught there for the 1991-92 school year before moving to Tallahassee to begin my PhD work.

The last class that I taught at UNCW was a four-week summer survey of American literature. When you teach a class of thirty-seven students for only a month, you don’t remember much about  them 25-plus years later. But I do remember a highly intelligent, charismatic, deep-voiced young man who was clearly going places, Today I found my gradebook from that year. I didn’t record the students’ first names, but ‘Mitchell’ is there, and I think it’s Corey.

Would you please ask him when he attended UNCW? If he was my student, I would like to speak with him briefly before one of the rehearsals.

Pam answered, yes, it was Corey, and he came into sharper focus. I could see him sitting in my office. He was wearing a hat. He often wore a hat. I began to remember part of a conversation we’d had. I emailed him to recount how he’d spoken with me about his admiration for Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Today, a month after I found his name in that old gradebook, I went to HCT’s rehearsal hall to surprise him with a brief pre-rehearsal visit. I chose today because it was my first day of teaching for the fall semester. Today I met thirty-seven of the one-hundred-plus students who will teach me this semester–as Corey taught me–as much, if not more, than I will teach them.

After I introduced myself to Corey, he invited me to sit down. He remembered reading an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club in my American literature survey course. He had enjoyed that chapter of Tan’s novel so much that he bought a copy of the book. Was her novel the subject of that outstanding oral presentation that he delivered? As he spoke with me, he demonstrated the attentiveness that the best teachers possess. That attentiveness is one of the many qualities that led Corey to win the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education back in 2015.

His devotion to his students at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts is chronicled in the 2015 documentary Purple Dreams, which traces his students’ lives–both on and off stage–as they rehearse and perform the musical The Color Purple, an enormously ambitious project for which their school raised over $170,000  “to take 107 people–cast, crew and orchestra–and rent the original Broadway set and costumes to perform at the International Thespian Festival two years ago [in 2013] in Nebraska” (Toppman par. 9).

In my email to Corey, I wrote: “As a teacher, I am always grateful to witness my students’ achievements in the classroom and beyond. Congratulations for all that you have accomplished, and thank you for all that you have given back.” I tried to say that again tonight as I left the rehearsal hall, but what came out was simply “I’m so proud of you!”

As I drove home, my thoughts turned to one of Stephen Sondheim’s anecdotes about his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein:

Just before he [Hammerstein] died, he gave me a picture of himself, and I asked him to inscribe it, which is sort of odd because he was a surrogate father to me. It’s like asking your father to inscribe a picture. He thought for a minute and was clearly a little embarrassed. Then he got a smile on his face like the cat had just eaten the cream. And he wrote something. And when he left the room, I read it. And it said, ‘For Stevie, my friend and teacher.’

Corey, this former teacher of yours, just three years your senior, isn’t your mentor or your surrogate mother. But these reflections are a portrait inscribed to you, “To my teacher.”


Lucas, Jane. “Corey Mitchell.” Received by Pamela Livingstone. 15 July 2019.

—. “Greetings from a Proud Teacher.” Received by Corey Mitchell. 17 July 2019.

Sondheim, Stephen. “To Me, Teaching is a Sacred Profession.” Sondheim on Sondheim. P.S. Classics, 2010.

Toppman,  Lawrence. “Charlotte Teacher Wins Tony Award.” Charlotteobserver.com, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/article23101743.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2015.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre

María Gringa

I’m standing in the dark with my ear to the curtain, trying not to think about the large stock pot I’m holding, or how easily it could slip from my damp, sweaty hands. I’m trying to block those thoughts with the words that I’m speaking in my mind, over and over, until I hear my cue:

FLORENCE Please ring again.

Cosme rings the bell a second time, on this occasion with more force. After a short pause, the sound of a pan [stock pot] being slammed down is heard off stage. (1.1)

Finally dropping the stock pot offers no relief from my anxiety; instead it heightens it, because it means that I’m closer to saying María’s lines, and closer to the risk that they’ll slip away from me.

FLORENCE Ah, that sounds promising. Here she comes.

María, the Mexican cook and housemaid, enters. (1.1)

I part the curtain and cross into the unknown, a place where I don’t know whether the words that I’ve prepared to say will come to me again, as I, María, approach my boss, Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in the world. Florence will ask María to bring tea and cake for her and her guest, her soon-to-be accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Disgruntled María savors the opportunity to tell Florence that she doesn’t feel like preparing cake and tea. She’s trying to clean the kitchen, and then she has to clean the carpet because Florence and her guests make such a mess. With what little Florence pays her, Florence can just serve herself. And so María tells her that:

Oh, pastel y te? No me apetece preparar nada para su mariquita. Estoy intentando limpiar la cocina y después tengo que limpiar la moqueta porque sus invitados dejan el apartamento como un cochinero. Con lo poco que me pagan, sírvanse ustedes mismos. (1.1)

I’m speaking the words rapid-fire—not as if I’m reciting lines in a script, but as if I’m someone I’m not: a fluent speaker. But no hablo español.

The rush that comes with being in the moment fades as I exit. My next line will be far shorter than the first, but as I wait backstage for my cue, I will be holding something far heavier than a stock pot: a large serving tray with a teapot, two teacups, a plate with a slice of cake, plus napkins and cutlery.

As I hold the tray, my hands begin to sweat again, and I’m trying not to think about how easily I could lose my grip (in more ways than one).  I’m trying to block that thought by mouthing my next line, one with a phrase that’s particularly hard for me to say. I think that saying luego me vuelvan (then come back) means voicing consonant clusters that aren’t common in English. But don’t take my word for it. This gringa’s no linguist.

Then once again I’m on stage, speaking the words rapid-fire, blasting through luego me vuelvan as if it’s second nature, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. And again the anxiety returns as soon as I exit. Despite the apparent ease of what I’ve done onstage, backstage I will always believe—throughout the entire three-week, ten-performance run—that the lines are about to slip away from me.

Why would anyone put herself through that?

The truth is, I almost didn’t.

It wasn’t the part I’d auditioned for, but that’s not the reason I was hesitant to say yes. Instead, I was reluctant because I believed that audiences would find me utterly unconvincing as a maid from Guadalajara. And I imagined that the same audiences that would bristle at the sight (and sound) of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed María would also be indignant at the director’s decision to cast an actor who wasn’t Latina.

Recently I was reminded of my reluctance to play María when my composition students and I were studying the essay “Always Living in Spanish,” in which Marjorie Agosín meditates on the vital need of writing in Spanish as a way to hold onto her native Chilé.  

As I gazed at the thumbnail photograph of Agosín on the page of the textbook, I asked myself: Would you have been so hesitant to accept the role of María if you’d known of this fair-skinned, blue-eyed Latina?

Writing of her perilous circumstances as a child who’d fled her home country, Agosín observes: “Daily I felt the need to translate myself for the strangers living around me, tell them why we’re in Georgia, why we are different, why we had fled, why my accent was so thick, and why I did not look Hispanic” (80).

Though I have experienced nothing remotely close to Agosín’s peril, backstage as María, I felt the weight of her words: “I had left a dangerous place that was my home, only to arrive in a dangerous place that was not” (80).

The stage is always a dangerous place, but accepting a role in another tongue meant venturing out of the dangerous place that was my home and into new dangerous territories: a place where some would say I shouldn’t (for lack of authenticity) and another place where some would say I couldn’t (for lack of believability). Those voices ran through my head until the director wore me down.

So this gringa said yes.

For all of my concerns about authenticity and believability, the real danger was the words, themselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that the challenge inherent in learning lines would be compounded by the cognitive shift required of learning them as a non-native speaker. When I say kitchen, in my mind, I see a kitchen. When I say cocina, I don’t. For the first time, I wasn’t visualizing my lines. Instead I was memorizing a series of unfamiliar sounds. I knew their English translation—and I’d kept a transcription with my script—but as a novice speaker, I couldn’t link the signs to the signifiers.

I had actually studied Spanish as a high-school and college student, but I conjugated my last Spanish verb more than thirty years ago, and I’d been a mediocre student at best. One of my most vivid memories of high school is a conversation with my Spanish teacher after class. Holding my quiz marked with a red F, he said: “Josefina [my sister, Jo] is so smart. What happened to you?” Would Señor Grave de Peralta have ever believed that theatre-goers would ask, “Are you bilingual?”

I am always grateful for the opportunity to return to the stage. As a nonmusical woman of a certain age, that chance comes all too seldom. Looking back at the months of rehearsal and performance of Glorious!, I am particularly thankful for the opportunity to embody a Guadalajaran. As María Gringa, I became a stranger in a strange and dangerous new place. I not only faced a new challenge as an actor, I also became a better teacher for my students who are non-native speakers. As María Gringa, I gained insight into the fears and anxieties they face when they struggle to make meaning of a series of unfamiliar sounds.

Three months after María Gringa left the stage for the last time, I was cast as an English-speaking French housekeeper. After learning an entire role in a different tongue, learning an accent alone seemed a cinch, though it proved otherwise.

After one of the performances, an audience member who’d also seen me as María Gringa asked me, “What’s your real accent?”

“Eastern North Carolinian,” I said.

He seemed rather disappointed.

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie. “Always Living in Spanish.” The Norton Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 79-81.

Quilter, Peter. Glorious! Samuel French, n.d.

Posted in Reading, Theatre

From Page to Stage: “Dreamland” at CVCC’s Blackbox Theatre

On Friday, October 5, students in Professor Kim Stinson’s play production class at Catawba Valley Community College performed a dramatic reading of Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, the 2018-19 Interdisciplinary Campus Read at CVCC.

(L-R) Eljae Roe, Sarah Hawkins, Penny Ly, Jesse Hoke, Zac Howard, Jackson Shoe, Cameron Owens

Moving Dreamland from the page to the stage was no small task for Stinson’s students, but they met the challenge admirably, crafting a compelling dramatization for seven actors. Rather than assigning each actor the role of one of the real-life characters who figures in the book, the actors alternated performing the lines of each passage, evoking the sound of a prose poem and imbuing each story within the larger narrative with multiple voices–an effect that underscored the broad scope of the crisis, emphasizing to the audience that Enrique isn’t the only young Mexican entrepreneur, that David Procter isn’t the only doctor overprescribing painkillers. Theirs are but two of the many stories–and there are the stories of the pharmaceutical pioneers, the narcotics investigators, and the survivors and parents as well.

The unadorned performance space of blackbox theatre provides actors an opportunity to focus on character-driven stories with minimal technical requirements, making Dreamland a model project for such a venue. The seven students who dramatized Dreamland in CVCC’s blackbox theatre brought the audience closer to the people who inhabit Quinones’ book and offered a poignant reminder of how close those stories are to home here in the Catawba Valley, where we find ourselves ranked fifth in the nation in opioid abuse.

Posted in Reading, Theatre

“Twelve Angry Men”: A First Reading and a Second Act

In my mind I have traveled back to my tenth-grade English classroom, to a desk where I haven’t sat for more than thirty-five years. Yet despite that temporal distance, parts of that room remain vivid to me: the side-by-side, long, narrow window and back door typical of public high schools built in the early 1970s and the air conditioning unit below the window. It was, in fact, the first public school in our county that was air-conditioned.

The relative smallness of the room seems at odds with the vast worlds of words that opened to me there in the pages of my textbook. I do not remember its title—all of those high-school literature anthologies had the word discovery or horizon in their titles, didn’t they? Though the title escapes me, I can still feel the waxy, uneven texture of the worn cover and the pages softened from semester after semester of students turning to these poems and short stories: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “Grass” by Carl Sandburg, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed, and “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats.

Why I recall more of those readings from my sophomore year of high school than I remember from the two years that followed, I do not know. Perhaps those poems and stories remain distinct in my mind because I was just starting to enjoy reading again. Books were my constant companions when I was a child, but in junior high I became too restless and distracted for them.

Along with those works of literature that I encountered for the first time in the pages of my sophomore anthology, I also discovered among them, to my surprise, some lines that I knew very well but didn’t expect to see in a textbook: the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” (“Ah, look at all the lonely people / Ah, look at all the lonely people.”)

When Miss Peggy Stanton played “Eleanor Rigby” for us, I thought that she, my staid, middle-aged teacher (probably younger then than I am now) was antithetical to the screaming teenage girls in the footage of Beatles concerts. Miss Stanton was a woman of quiet strength. Childhood polio had left one of her legs shorter than the other, and she wore one shoe with a very thick sole to minimize her limp. I was so fascinated by her physical imbalance, I began to imagine her as a fictional character, a spinster school teacher whose brilliant mind compensated for her impairment.

As I sat in her class and listened to the words of “Eleanor Rigby,” I thought of my own loneliness. I dwelled on its particulars then, not old enough yet to understand that it wasn’t mine alone. But I began to understand something about the universality of our particular human struggles and began to develop my capacity for empathy in those days in Miss Stanton’s class, especially on the days when we turned in our textbook to the pages of Twelve Angry Men.

Though I may have seen the Henry Fonda film before I read the play, my first memory of Twelve Angry Men is reading it aloud in Miss Stanton’s class. I don’t remember which juror I was asked to read. What I remember clearly is holding one firm belief about the nineteen-year-old boy on trial for murdering his father and gradually realizing that what I had viewed as facts were merely suppositions, and that reasonable doubt warranted a verdict of not guilty.

Unlike the other works of literature that I’d read in English class, Twelve Angry Men didn’t dazzle me with poetic language or character development. The jurors spoke plainly. They were numbers without names. But when Juror Eight led his peers to question their assumptions, he led me to question mine. When I was a high school student in the early 1980s, critical thinking wasn’t the pervasive term that it is now in conversations about education. But that’s exactly what I was doing: thinking critically. And I was developing my capacity for empathy as I witnessed Juror Nine explain why he identified with one of the witnesses, an old man whose credibility is called into question:

I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant, old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him, nobody quotes him, nobody seeks his advice after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing. A man like this needs to be recognized, to be listened to, to be quoted just once. This is very important. It would be so hard for him to recede in the background . . . . (Rose 36)

That old man was Eleanor Rigby, and so was Juror Nine.

Now, so many years later, I find myself revisiting the play as a reader of a different sort. I am sitting with its lines before me on three-by-five index cards, part of the line-learning ritual that I adopted when I returned to acting in my forties. Back in that tenth-grade classroom, 188 miles and decades away, I see that fifteen-year-old version of myself who had just started acting a year earlier. I am a stranger to her. I, this woman she would become, who would turn away from acting—to focus on college, and teaching, and writing—and then turn back to acting, and fall in love with it all over again, decades later.

As I study my lines, I continue to reflect on first reading Twelve Angry Men and on “Eleanor Rigby,” the two inextricably yoked in my mind—not only because I read them both my sophomore year but also because of their music. In the twelve jurors of Rose’s play, I hear the violins, violas, and cellos of “Eleanor Rigby.” And to be one of Rose’s players, to carry the music of a juror’s voice from page to stage, makes my heart sing.

Works Cited

Lennon, John and Paul McCartney. “Eleanor Rigby.” Revolver. Capitol, 1966.

Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Jurors. 1954. Penguin, 2006.

Posted in Theatre, Writing

Serafina on Stage

Serafina and the Black Cloak / LR Playmakers

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Staging Serafina—as the Playmakers at Lenoir-Rhyne University recently did—poses a number of challenges, not the least of which involves condensing the action of a novel to a one-act script. With impressive economy, the Playmakers captured the spirit of Beatty’s novel. Using minimal set pieces, props, and costumes, projecting screen images on either side of the stage, and breaking the fourth wall, their production of Serafina and the Black Cloak conveyed a strong sense of both character and place.

Breaking the fourth wall proved particularly effective for the Playmakers, offering one solution to the problem that adapters face, namely how to convey information the audience needs, but that characters would not say in dialogue. Speaking directly to the audience at the beginning of the play, Serafina (Callie Cope) recounted how she and her father, the Vanderbilt’s machine mechanic, live secretly in the basement of the Biltmore mansion.

The Biltmore house, itself, remained a presence throughout the play as a backdrop in the form of a triptych of painted cloth panels draped over black curtains. Actors entered and exited through the openings in the curtains, creating the appearance that they were entering and leaving the mansion.

Entrances and exits occurred frequently and rapidly, with six of the ten actors performing multiple speaking roles (two to four) and many also playing additional nonspeaking roles, including rats, horses, trees, tombstones, gallery portraits, statues, and ventilation shafts.

Lightning-fast costumes changes required minimal alterations in appearance: an actor in theatre blacks pulling on a horse mask, for instance. Such simplicity served the story well, underscoring its place in the realm of fantasy, where the lines between human and animal blur and shift.

To fashion a sense of the vast forest that surrounds the estate and the action that takes place there, director Elisabeth Bokhoven integrated clips of the actors filmed in the woods. In the scene where Serafina’s Father, “Pa” (Chase Fowler) reveals where he found her (50-52 in Beatty’s novel), Pa and Serafina become a tableau vivant, frozen on stage, as the large screens that framed them projected a film clip of Pa in the woods, the camera following him through the trees to the spot where he finds the bundle that holds the infant Serafina.

No stage production of a fantasy story can create the special effects that a film can, but integrating film into a stage production with innovative set and costume design, and actors breaking the fourth wall, reminds audiences of the immense possibilities of theatre when dramatists use their imaginations to develop creative solutions. What the Lenoir-Rhyne Playmakers brought to life in their adaptation of Serafina and the Black Cloak displayed the real magic of the craft.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Serafina and the Black Cloak. By Robert Beatty, adapted by Elisabeth Bokhoven, Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Milissia Kocelik, and Heather Osterer, directed by Elisabeth Bokhoven, performances by Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Caleb Hoyle, Milissia Koncelik, Ashton Pesterfield, Hannah Saunders, Ariona Smith, Taylor Thomas, and Corey Smith, LR Playmakers, 14 Apr. 2018, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.