Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Vassar College Presidents’ Names, Ranked by WASPiness

It was announced today that Vassar College’s new president, starting this July, will be Elizabeth Howe Bradley, a professor of public health at Yale.

Dr. Bradley has many qualifications to join the illustrious line of Vassar’s presidents, not least of which is: her name is really WASPy.

Yes, I’m starting to suspect that there’s a little-known provision in the Vassar College by-laws that requires its president to have a WASPy name. Behold: the list of Vassar presidents’ names, ranked by WASPiness.

12. Jonathan Lee Chenette, interim president 2016-2017
“Chenette”? Sounds dainty. Sounds French. Sounds suspiciously foreign and Papist. No wonder he’s only the Interim President.

11. Alan Simpson, president 1964-1977
This is a Boring White Guy Name, which is subtly different from a WASPy name. Mr. Simpson also loses points for being the only person on this list, as far as I can tell, who lacks a middle name.

10. John Howard Raymond, president 1864-1878
Another name that signals “Average White Guy” more than it specifically signals “WASP.” “John Raymond” could be a bank president, but he could also be a truck driver.

9. James Monroe Taylor, president 1886-1914
Ol’ James here gains points for having surnames that belonged to two U.S. Presidents, but loses points for being plain “James Taylor,” like your parents’ favorite folk-rocker, if you leave out his middle name.

8. Samuel Lunt Caldwell, president 1878-1885
Now we’re talking. This is the name of a man who wore mutton chops and a high collar and looked at you with Calvinist disapproval.

7. Elizabeth Howe Bradley, president 2017-
An excellent WASP name, especially by 21st-century standards. Note that her position on this list is provisional until I learn whether she uses a nickname for “Elizabeth” and, if so, what it is. “Liz” or “Beth” would likely keep her ranking the same, but if it’s “Libby” or “Buffy,” she’s definitely moving a few slots further up.

6. Virginia Beatrice Smith, president 1977-1986
Proof that you can possess the U.S.’s most common surname and still sound like a member of the top 1%, provided that your first two names are “Virginia” and “Beatrice.”

5. Frances “Fran” Daly Fergusson, president 1986-2006
A wonderfully WASPy name, with a breezy New England jauntiness in its short form, “Fran Fergusson.” My, she was yar.

4. Sarah Gibson Blanding, president 1946-1964
If I was reading a novel in which a Northeastern schoolteacher or headmistress was named “Sarah Gibson Blanding,” I’d think it was too on-the-nose.

3. Henry Noble MacCracken, president 1915-1946
“Noble”? Now you’re not even trying to be subtle.

2. Catharine “Cappy” Bond Hill, president 2006-2016

1. Milo Parker Jewett, president 1861-1864
The first, and still the best. Vassar's been trying for over 150 years, but I don't think they'll ever have a president with a name more WASPy than this.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Memorable Theatergoing 2016 -- "Glass Menagerie" in Paris

When I was in Paris last April, I took myself to see La ménagerie de verre (The Glass Menagerie), directed by Daniel Jeanneteau at the Théâtre National de la Colline. It was definitely a European-style staging: minimalist set, barefoot actors, some stylized movement seemingly influenced by modern dance. But because Glass Menagerie is a memory play (not a work of strict realism), much of the abstraction and minimalism worked for me. The production also made very effective use of scrims: most of the scenes happened behind a veil so when the actors emerged from behind it, it was very powerful.

Moreover, that scene between Laura and Jim is so damn well written, so delicate and romantic and heartbreaking, and the production played it completely straight, and even though I was in the very last row of the theater, I got tears in my eyes when the glass unicorn broke and Laura said "Maintenant il est comme tous les autres chevaux" ("Now he is like all the other horses").

I understood probably 95% of the dialogue; Tennessee Williams doesn't strike me as incredibly hard to translate to French, and the actors spoke fairly slowly. Even now, months later, I can hear Amanda's final words to Tom from this version: "Va à la lune, espèce de reveur... EGOISTE!" ("Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer!") The "pleurosis"/"blue roses" pun, which I thought might be the most difficult bit of the play to translate, actually lent itself to a direct translation: it became "pleurésie"/"Bleu-Rosie." And "gentleman caller" got translated as "galant," which is kind of the best.

And I love going to the theater in France and making the actors do five curtain calls and applauding so much my arms hurt. And I totally got an instant crush on the slim, tousled French dude with hipster glasses and a blazer who was running the theater bookstore. And I went to a café afterwards on Place Gambetta and ordered chocolate mousse and a laughably large carafe of red wine, because I was rusty on the metric system, and when I apologized to the waiter, he reassured me "Well, you'll sleep well tonight, non?" And I giddy-giggled, slightly tipsy from that wine, on an empty Métro car, as I checked Facebook and saw what was happening with my friends, nine hours behind me on the other side of the world. And I changed trains at République station and encountered a cloud of tear gas on the platform: protests about a new labor law were going on above, in the Place de la République. And, mercifully, my train arrived about thirty seconds later, so I just held my breath till I could escape into its cleaner air. And I spoke French the whole night and nobody tried to speak to me in English. And I learned that seeing a beautiful play that brings tears to your eyes will more than make up for minor irritations, like running into a cloud of gas that brings tears to your eyes. And it was one of the best nights I had all year.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 in Books

On the first morning of 2016, having reread the first six Narnia books over Christmas, I read C.S. Lewis' distasteful, apocalyptic The Last Battle while suffering from an awful champagne hangover, and somehow I feel that set the wrong tone for the year.

On this the last evening of 2016, I read Harold Bloom's life-affirming, slightly nutty Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human while eating Eritrean food and a nice glass of red wine, so that I could end the year having finished a book that I started in April 2016, the month of the #Shakespeare400 celebrations.

And in the meantime? I read about 50 other works; here's the full rundown. As is my custom, I split my reading into 2 lists, one for plays/screenplays and one for everything else (primarily novels and nonfiction). I count plays only if they are published and available for general consumption. Works that were rereads for me this year are marked with an asterisk.

  1. *The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
  2. The Magician’s Book, by Laura Miller
  3. Coldwater, by Mardi McConnochie – my thoughts
  4. Beautiful Chaos, by Carey Perloff 
  5. The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe, anthology edited by Anne Cruz and Mihoko Suzuki
  6. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons 
  7. Personal Writings, by Ignatius of Loyola
  8. Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark
  9. A Writer’s Paris, by Eric Maisel
  10. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm
  11. After Alice, by Gregory Maguire
  12. *Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  13. Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter – I wrote a review of this for the Theater Pub blog
  14. Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman
  15. *A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster
  16. *The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
  17. *Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
  18. *The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
  19. The Magician King, by Lev Grossman
  20. The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman
  21. The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill – my thoughts
  22. Lyric Poems, by John Keats
  23. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, by Sarah Ruhl
  24. English Melodrama, by Michael R. Booth
  25. Bellwether, by Connie Willis
  26. *Persuasion, by Jane Austen
  27. *The White Album, by Joan Didion – my post from when I first read this, in 2014
  28. *The Arkadians, by Lloyd Alexander
  29. *Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen – my post from when I first read this, in 2008
  30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  31. *The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon – my post from when I first read this, in 2008
  32. Winter’s Tales, by Isak Dinesen 
  33. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
These books, by the numbers:
  • 16 American, 11 British, 2 Danish, 1 Australian, 1 Spanish, 1 Canadian, 1 anthology 
  • 17 books by 15 different men, 16 books by 14 different women
  • 22 new reads, 11 rereads 
  • 22 fiction, 10 nonfiction, 1 poetry
Plays & Screenplays
  1. Light Up the Sky, by Moss Hart
  2. Five Finger Exercise, by Peter Shaffer
  3. The Private Ear, by Peter Shaffer
  4. The Public Eye, by Peter Shaffer
  5. White Liars, by Peter Shaffer
  6. Black Comedy, by Peter Shaffer
  7. The Royal Hunt of the Sun, by Peter Shaffer
  8. Shrivings, by Peter Shaffer
  9. *Equus, by Peter Shaffer
  10. *Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
  11. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by Jack Thorne – I wrote about this for American Theatre's website
  12. The Woman in Black, by Stephen Mallatratt – my thoughts
  13. Really, by Jackie Sibblies Drury
  14. *Blithe Spirit, by Noël Coward
  15. *Hay Fever, by Noël Coward 
  16. *The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde 
  17. *Private Lives, by Noël Coward 
  18. Design for Living, by Noël Coward – my thoughts
  19. Barcelona, by Whit Stillman 
  20. Metropolitan, by Whit Stillman 
These plays and screenplays, by the numbers:
  • 15 British, 4 American, 1 Irish 
  • 19 plays by 7 different men, 1 play by 1 different woman 
  • 14 new reads, 6 rereads 
(As always, I'm struck by how my "non-plays" reading is about 50/50 in terms of gender balance, and the plays I saw this year were about 60:40 male:female, but I always seem to end up reading way more plays by men than by women. My best guess is that this happens because I prefer seeing plays to reading them, and most "important" new scripts make it to the Bay Area within 5 or so years after they premiere. So the plays that I read tend to be classics that I've overlooked or never had the chance to see staged—and "classic" plays are disproportionately written by men.)

Previous Years in Reading lists: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007

Friday, December 30, 2016

Theatergoing 2016: The List

I neglected to do this in 2014 or 2015, but let's bring back my year-end tradition of the Theatergoing Report!

In 2016, I saw 41 fully staged* productions, listed here in chronological order:

*the dividing line between "full production" and "rough experiment" can get blurred in indie theater but my rough rule is "did the actors memorize it? if so, it's a production. if not, it's a staged reading."
  1. Of Serpents & Sea Spray, by Rachel Bublitz, at Custom Made Theatre
  2. The Morrissey Plays, by various authors, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  3. Satchmo at the Waldorf, by Terry Teachout, at American Conservatory Theatre
  4. Over the Rainbow, by Tonya Narvaez, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  5. Pas de Quatre, by Margery Fairchild, at Dark Porch Theater
  6. Sam and Dede, by Gino DiIorio, at Custom Made Theatre
  7. The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, at San Francisco Playhouse
  8. School of Rock, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater, and Julian Fellowes, presented by Oakland School of the Arts at the Curran Theatre (my piece for American Theatre on this)
  9. Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn, at Magic Theatre
  10. Shortlived 2016, Round 3, by various authors (including me), at PianoFight
  11. Hotel Burlesque, by Red Velvet and Amanda Ortmayer, at DivaFest
  12. Chinese Whispers: Golden Gate, by Rene Yung, at the Southside Theater
  13. On the Spot 2016, by various authors, at Theater Pub
  14. Middletown, by Will Eno, at Custom Made
  15. American Psycho, by Duncan Sheik and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, on Broadway
  16. La ménagerie de verre, by Tennessee Williams, at Théâtre National de la Colline (Paris)
  17. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, at Shotgun Players
  18. Sticky Icky, by Colin Johnson, at Theater Pub
  19. Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare, at Custom Made
  20. Maggie's Riff, by Jon Lipsky, at FaultLine Theatre
  21. The Village Bike, by Penelope Skinner, at Shotgun Players
  22. Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, at SF Playhouse
  23. Confessions of a Catholic Child,  by Elizabeth Appell, at EXIT Theatre
  24. Adventures in Tech, by Stuart Bousel, at PianoFight
  25. Portal: The Musical, by Kirk Shimano and Jonathan Coulton, at Theater Pub
  26. Hunting Love, by Susan-Jane Harrison, produced by Local Dystopia at the Flight Deck
  27. The Thrush and the Woodpecker, by Steve Yockey, at Custom Made
  28. Campo Maldito, by Bennett Fisher, produced by People of Interest
  29. The Awakening, adapted by Oren Stevens, at the Breadbox
  30. Pint-Sized Plays 2016, by various authors (including me), at Theater Pub
  31. Stupid Ghost, by Savannah Reich, at Theater Pub
  32. Caught, by Christopher Chen, at Shotgun Players
  33. Chess, by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, and Björn Ulvaeus, at Custom Made Theater
  34. Gravedigger: The Musical, by Dylan Waite and Casey Robbins, at Theater Pub
  35. Casa Valentina, by Harvey Fierstein, at NCTC
  36. The Hard Problem, by Tom Stoppard, at American Conservatory Theatre
  37. Into the Beautiful North, by Karen Zacarias, at Central Works
  38. King Lear, by William Shakespeare, at Theater Pub
  39. Paradise Street, by Clive Barker, at EXIT Theatre (thoughts)
  40. Rapture Blister Burn, by Gina Gionfriddo, at Custom Made
  41. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, at Marin Theatre Co.
If you tally the above list by playwright gender, 22 of the shows had male writers or all-male writing teams, 15 had female writers or all-female writing teams, and 4 were mixed-gender anthologies. So, a roughly 60:40 male:female ratio. Not perfect, but not awful, either, considering that the Counting Actors Project often posts numbers that show a male:female playwright ratio of more like 80:20. It's possible to admit there's room for improvement while also being thrilled at how easy it feels nowadays to see interesting plays by women, right?

I also attended the following staged readings, in which female playwrights were even better represented:
  1. An Ear for Voices by Alina Trowbridge, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program
  2. Cypress, Sin, and Care by Alandra Hileman, at the Breadbox
  3. The Princess and the Porn Star, by Kirk Shimano, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program
  4. You'll Not Feel the Drowning, by me, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program (3 separate readings, in May, September, and December)
  5. Oceanus, by Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song, at Custom Made's Undiscovered Works program
  6. Better than Television (4 nights), by Megan Cohen and various authors, at Theater Pub
  7. Queen of the Sword, by Alandra Hileman, at Loud and Unladylike
  8. Christine Emerges, by Tonya Narvaez, at Loud and Unladylike
  9. Juana, or The Greater Glory, by me, at Loud and Unladylike
  10. A Night of New Works, excerpts of plays by various authors (including me), at Playwrights Foundation
  11. Hades by Jason Wimbish and Hecate by Neil Higgins, at the Olympians Festival
  12. Styx by Christine Keating, Acheron by Patsy Fergusson, and Lethe by Alan Olejniczak, at the Olympians Festival
  13. Macaria, or The Good Life by me, Charon, or Ferryman by Bridgette Dutta Portman, and Ascalaphus, or Tattletale by Elizabeth Flanagan, at the Olympians Festival
  14. Thanatos by Barbara Jwanouskos and Julianne Jigour, Morpheus by Kirk Shimano, and Hypnos, or Cardenio by Alan Coyne, at the Olympians Festival
  15. Drumming With Anubis, by David Templeton, at the Olympians Festival
  16. Being Your Own Bunny by Veronica Tjioe & Tootsie's Jook Joint by Jovelyn Richards, at the Olympians Festival
  17. Cyrus by Tonya Narvaez and The People of the Shifting Sands by Nirmala Nataraj, at the Olympians Festival
  18. Demeter, or Ceres en Victoria by Stuart Bousel, at Cafe du Nord
Plus, I watched broadcasts of two shows at home from my laptop!
  1. Stegosaurus, or Three Cheers for Climate Change by Andrew Saito, produced by FaultLine Theatre, shown on HowlRound TV
  2. She Loves Me, by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joe Masteroff, shown on BroadwayHD
And I saw two operas at SF Opera:
  1. Don Carlo, by Verdi
  2. Don Pasquale, by Donizetti
My previous year-end Theatergoing reports: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The End of Theater Pub

A lot of things have ended in 2016, and San Francisco Theater Pub is among them.

I fell behind on cross-linking my Theater Pub columns here this year, and in 2017 I hope to collect links to all of my writing in one place, but, for now, here are the five final Theater Pub pieces I wrote.

"What I Did For Love" – following the September announcement that Theater Pub would end after its December show, I wrote about the factors that led to this decision and the reasons why no one should feel heartbroken at the news.

"Comma Comments" – "I’m a descriptivist when it comes to how I punctuate the dialogue of my plays, but I am a strict prescriptivist when it comes to expecting actors to respect that punctuation," and more thoughts on punctuation and playwriting.

"Pet Peeves in Arts Journalism" – after 4+ years of blogging for Theater Pub, I used one of my final columns to complain about phrases and ideas that bother me in other arts writing, including "The Bard," "the play's the thing," and either too much or too little knowledge of the past.

"If Only Angels Could Prevail" – I wrote this the night after the election and don't know how I did it. On facing the next four years, the possible role of artist and artists during that time, and how I survived Election Night by sneaking into a Sondheim rehearsal in the back room.

"They Can't Take That Away From Me" – there was no time for nostalgia the day after the election, but last week, I took some time to write a nostalgic look-back at seven years of Theater Pub and seven years of my twenties, titled after the song I sang at the final Theater Pub show.

Monday, December 19, 2016

I'll Always, Always Keep the Memory Of...

San Francisco Theater Pub, the scrappy little theater-in-a-bar that has done so much for me since it started in January 2010, is having its last-ever show tonight. And before it goes away for good, it's giving me the chance to fulfill one more dream: to stand on a cabaret stage in a vintage dress and sing a wistful ballad from the Great American Songbook.

Summing up everything that Theater Pub has meant to me would normally take thousands of words... but fortunately, the Gershwins wrote "They Can't Take That Away From Me" to say everything that needs to be said on occasions like this.

Tonight's show, including my contribution, will be a singalong of musical theater favorites. As always, admission is free and we'll pass a hat for donations; this time, though, we'll be donating all proceeds to the ACLU. ("My constitutional rights, no, no, they can't take that away from me?" Don't worry, I will be singing the original lyrics.)

The bittersweet fun starts at 8 PM at PianoFight (144 Taylor St, San Francisco).

Banner art by Cody Rishell.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Discontented Bohemians: the darkness of "Design for Living"

Happy birthday, Noël Coward! "The Master" was born 117 years ago today. In his honor, here are some thoughts on his play Design for Living, which I read for the first time last month.

Alfred Lunt, Noël Coward, and Lynn Fontanne in the 1930s world premiere of Design for Living. SCANDALOUS.
I had heard that Design for Living was a scandalous-in-its-time comedy about bisexual polyamory, so I expected it to be a naughty and frothy romp. But I found it a much sadder, angrier play than I anticipated. The characters’ unconventional sexual mores don’t seem to make them happy; they think free love will liberate them but it mostly seems to lead to discontentment and anguish.

The two men in the play’s poly-triad – painter Otto and playwright Leo – are not very distinctly characterized, but the woman, Gilda, is an enormously powerful role. Gilda is full of a frustrated, neurotic, self-loathing energy. She’s a liberated woman by 1930s standards, but she still can’t seem to imagine herself without a man, and she is keenly conscious that the world sees her as a mere dilettante (she is an interior decorator) while lauding Otto and Leo as “real” artists. The driving force of the plot is Gilda’s dissatisfaction and inability to be happy with what she has.

I wasn’t expecting it, but this play reminded me a lot of Jules and Jim, another story in which the close relationship between two bohemian men is upended by the arrival of an alluring, unstable woman. Granted, Design for Living ends more happily than Jules and Jim – in the last act, Leo, Otto, and Gilda’s free-spirited ways are contrasted with the stuffiness of conventional society, and the play finally starts to feel like a comedy. But Acts One and Two, despite the glamorous pajamas-and-cocktails trappings, are a surprisingly dark story about, in Noël Coward’s own words, “glib, over-articulate and amoral creatures […] [who] are like moths in a pool of light, unable to tolerate the lonely outer darkness, and equally unable to share the light without colliding constantly and bruising one another’s wings.”

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