Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's Here: Taffety Punk's The Faithkiller

Two months of hard work have reached fruition. Tomorrow night (March 30), the curtain officially goes up on the latest play from Taffety Punk Theatre Company: The Faithkiller.

A world premiere is always exciting, and this one is particularly terrific. Gwydion Suilebhan is one of D.C.'s most exciting playwrights, and The Faithkiller is an incredibly ambitious play that weaves history, broadcast media, religious faith and atheism together in an ambitious and fully-realized work. And if you're interested in classic radio or the culture wars that surround religion's place in the public square -- this play is a must-see.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company's artistic director Marcus Kyd is directing, and he's dreamed up an audacious multimedia approach to the play that underscores the collisions of media (radio, TV and stage) and faith in Suilebhan's work.

As usual with Taffety Punk, all tickets are $10! You can get more information on the play here... and of course the all important tix information here! You can even order tickets online right here.

Caryl Churchill Gets Libelled

Because I was off at a conference in San Francisco until today, I was unable to attend the Washington, D.C. readings and discussions of Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Girls: A Play for Gaza. I'm sorry to have missed this event.

Churchill is one of our greatest living playwrights, and her work has been a formal touchstone for my own endeavors. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire taught me so much about how the past can be dragged kicking and screaming into the present without betraying its essence as history. And I've been reading the incredible first act of Top Girls as I grapple with a very complicated cafe scene of my own in a new play I'm writing. She is one of our indispensible playwrights.

First thing: Kudos to Theatre J and Forum Theatre for hosting the readings. This is truly the mission of theatre -- to expose audiences to provocative and excellent new work. Theatre J's Ari Roth and Forum's Michael Dove get mad props from this playwright for doing so.

There has been a lot written about the productions, including this extended dialogue between Roth and Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg. Despite its length, it's worth reading, especially for Roth's spirited defense of Churchill as an artist and his choice to stage the readings at Theatre J.
For me, this exchange near the beginning is telling:

JG: Let me give you another quote from Caryl Churchill. "Israel has done a lot of terrible things in the past, but what happened in Gaza seems particularly extreme." This is a woman who hates Israel. She's not complicated. I mean, has she ever expressed an ounce of sympathy for a Jewish child victim of a Hamas suicide bomber?

AR: You're a great writer, but you may not love art enough. And you --

I may not love art enough?

AR: Yeah, maybe you don't love the dramatic arts enough. You know a thousand things but you're making assumptions about Caryl Churchill that are not true, in terms of her lack of empathy. So I would invite you to come sit in on a rehearsal. We're just trying to understand what she's saying. Okay?

The other important point that Goldberg makes that needs to be refuted in as clear as terms as possible is that somehow Caryl Churchill is perpetuating the "blood libel" against Jews regarding the ritual killing of innocent children.

I have been thinking a lot about what I wanted to say this issue, but when I came home, I saw that Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon had beaten me to the punch with a powerful cover story in The Nation. The entire essay is terrific, but I found the authors' dissection of the "blood libel" charge leveled against a monologue near the end of the play particularly powerful:

When the two of us first discussed Seven Jewish Children we turned immediately to those lines. We both winced when we read them; we both became alarmed. One of us was disturbed by the line "tell her we're better haters," resonant of Shylock and Alberich the Nibelung. The other focused on "tell her we're chosen people," contending that in this context it reflected a misunderstanding of the term "chosen people," casting Jewish chosen-ness as an expression of divine right and exceptionalism rather than of religious/ethical responsibility. We speculated that these two lines added fuel to the willful misreading as blood libel of the lines that follow: "tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it's not her." Those who level the blood-libel accusation insist that Churchill has written "tell her I'm happy when I see their children covered in blood."

But that is not what Churchill wrote. Distortion, misrepresentation and name-calling are tactics familiar to anyone who's spoken out about the Middle East. There's no blood libel in the play. The last line of the monologue is clearly a warning: you can't protect your children by being indifferent to the children of others.

Writing bravely about controversy is the lifeblood of theatre. And Churchill has an amazing track record in doing so -- brilliantly. In my view, making such a charge against Churchill is libel -- and a vicious attempt to chill the expression of all playwrights. But you can read a print out of the play here. Decide for yourself.

NB: Ari Roth has already posted a reflection on the week in the context of his theater's festival -- Voices from a Changing Middle East -- on the Theatre J blog.

Jonesin' for that Googlejuice

The showing of The Wire's final season in Britain has revived the argument about the death of the American newspaper made so brilliantly by David Simon and his creative team in that final season.

On Saturday, The Guardian had an exclusive interview with Simon in which The Wire's creator seems to have sharpened his articulation of the stakes involved in the implosion of the American newspaper. He has also taken a hard line on whether or not newspapers should renew their efforts to actually charge money for their content:

[Simon] rejects the idea that newspapers should seek ways to embrace the new world of free information, arguing that they must urgently start charging money for content distributed online.

"Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model," says Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. "To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It's got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption."

The leader of the opposition to this notion is the grand poobah of media consulting -- Jeff Jarvis -- and his toxic (for news gatherers) bleating for the media to just surrender and addict itself to so-called "Googlejuice." Jarvis' glee in the crumbling of the old order has been essayed here -- and this recent dialogue with "Newsosaur" Alan D. Mutter in the Los Angeles Times gets much deeper into the weeds. But here's a succinct bit of the rebuttal in the Simon interview:

Jeff Jarvis, a new media consultant who writes a column for the Guardian, said: "The traditionalists are trying to transplant elements of the old business model into a new business reality ... when you put your content behind a wall, you lose more than you gain. You lose a lot of readers and the advertising revenue associated with them, you lose the ability to be discovered by new readers, you lose out to free competitors, of whom there'll be an unlimited supply, and you lose influence, because you're taken out of the conversation."

The article also messes up the alleged lesson of the failure of TimesSelect.Why did the New York Times' attempt to charge fail? Because the Times bowed to the alleged cult of journalistic celebrity and put something that's as free as the air (the opinions of its big time columnists) behind a pay wall -- along with another perk that I'd wager at least 40 % of Times readers can access in other venues (its archive.)

The entire model for Google and other aggregators is dependent on the most valuable thing that the Times does: its daily in-depth reporting in real time. That wasn't behind the pay wall, yet it is the thing for which it and other print/web journalism could charge a substantial amount. It is, in essence, the juice that runs Google and the Huffington Post and other aggregators. What's valuable to Google and other aggregators is having the best journalism available instantaneously and for free. They can manufacture opinion and buy up archives. But if aggregators lose access to the best journalism, their news efforts take a huge hit. And to make up for it, they would need to (a) pay or (b) start up competing news organizations. Either way, quality journalism gets funded.

Simon is on the right track when he observes "the internet does froth and commentary very well, but you don't meet many internet reporters down at the courthouse."A lot of the Jarvis model of future journalism is built on pushing the great mass of new bloggers and amateurs -- via foundation grants, say, or quasi newspapers -- to eventually professionalize along the lines of the new business model. Could happen. Likely not. And, anyway, in the meantime, we need the journalism we have -- and have to make it better.

Google page image courtesy of zoolcar9 under a Creative Commons license.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Balkans via Bohemia Reading/Viewing List 03/03/09

Neglected a few interesting articles over the past couple weeks. Many readers will want to check them out:

* I have written a good bit about the arrest of Radovan Karadžić -- and now we get a terrific glimpse at the mechanics of his upcoming trial at The Hague via this video dialogue on Bloggingheadstv between Mark Leon Goldberg (who writes for UN Dispatch) and Kevin Jon Heller -- a professor who's involved in the Karadžić defense. For those who are interested in the workings of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), legal and political criticisms of the court, and how one defends an accused war criminal, it's a must see.

* The New Yorker's fascinating and sad article on the career and suicide of David Foster Wallace is here.

* Obama is going to Prague. He's going to give the "European speech of the year." If you're reading, Mr. President (or any journalists going to cover it), I recommend Gitanes -- a Balkan restaurant literally steps from the U.S. Embassy.

Kelli pours some Vranac wine at Gitanes in Prague, March 2007.

Gettysburg: 1863 in 2009?

John H. Summers has a terrific new article in The New Republic that examines ongoing work to restore the battlefield site at Gettysburg to its "1863 appearance" -- whatever that might be.

Summers writes that:

The project likely delights the reenactors who troop to Gettysburg every year in pursuit of authenticity, as well as those tourists who expect less to encounter history during their battlefield trip than to experience it. Academic historians also appear to approve. University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher, who advised a recent project at the battlefield, cheers in the current issue of Civil War Times that "there has never been a better time to visit Gettysburg." Those who might object to the removal of the trees, he says, are "people who don't understand the difference between a historic park and Yosemite." Rehabilitation has something for everyone: It flatters the left's suspicion of cultural authority, its invitation to ordinary Americans to participate in their history, even as it honors conservatism's fetish for an unchanged, historically correct past. Indeed, Gettysburg, the jewel of America's battlefields, is one of several currently targeted for rehabilitation, including Vicksburg and Antietam.

But Summers takes a dim view of the project:

To truly experience what it was like to be at Gettysburg, we would need to lie with soldiers as they bled to death, groaning in pain; rotting corpses with missing limbs; streams running red; winds swarming with flies; air smelling of burning horseflesh. As we cannot know the precise cartography of the battlefield, or the movements of every soldier, or the location of every tree, so we should not try to leap backward into authenticity, or expect to become an eyewitness to history simply by showing up. The arrogance laid up around this expectation is astonishing.

I have visited Gettysburg 15 or so times, and have wandered all over the battlefield. I have even had an opportunity to clamber up the face of Little Round Top. The Confederate assault on it must have been astonishingly difficult -- and its near success almost miraculous. Summers' essay is a keenly argued, carefully researched and deeply felt essay on history and time, memory and conflict, that is worth reading and pondering.

(I recently reviewed Summers' book of essays -- Every Fury on Earth -- for the most recent issue of BookForum. It's also worth checking out.)

Photograph of dead Confederate soldier in the "Devil's Den" at Gettysburg by Alexander Gardner: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division