In anticipation of my upcoming return to the West Coast, I decided to take a look, for the first time in several years, at a seminal “West Coast” film for me – Into the Wild, originally released in the fall of 2007. Hard to believe that is almost a decade ago at this point in time!
The circumstances of when and where I first saw the film likely contributed to its lasting impact. I was spending a few days in Albuquerque, New Mexico, accompanying my mom to a conference, but with an open-ended personal schedule, just like the main character in the film, to some extent. The New Mexico crisp quality of light, color and air was in full abundance in the late October time of year, and it was my first time ever seeing the state. I’d just had a phone interview, while on that trip, that led to my first job in California, and the prospect of that transition and opportunity was even more eye-opening, again in a more structured way to what the main character of the film anticipates with his journey to Alaska.
I saw the film again 4 or 5 months later at The Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo, California, still one of the friendliest movie theatres I’ve ever spent time in. By that time I had settled in to the California lifestyle and the film took on more of a “reinforcing” of the open road feeling, as opposed to the potential of the earlier screening in New Mexico. Still, there was a yearning there, and many possibilities existed for where my path could go at that time, in a way that I see now is characteristic of one’s early 20’s, and I was right in the same age bracket that the main character of the film was during the narrative.
For some reason I was less familiar with the original story and circumstances of Chris McCandless’ life at the time, probably because the main events took place when I was much younger. However, I was aware the author Jon Krakauer was a highly-regarded fellow Hampshire College alum – yet another personal connection to the story. And the director Sean Penn would later briefly be a down the street neighbor in Marin County.
So, in 2007 and 2008 the film made a lasting impact on me, with its wide vistas of Alaskan scenery and intense story of abandoning one’s personal possessions and family members for a back to the land life. Eddie Vedder’s original songs continue to be on my personal playlist from time to time, including one particular track (that I’d forgotten is not actually featured in the film) which feels emblematic of just driving around on the West Coast, and the sense of sky and open space that is so unique to the region.
In 2015 the film feels like a time capsule to me. First on the level of its featured actors professional trajectory, such as lead Emile Hirsch perhaps finding it difficult to top the performance he gives in this film, and running into some personal troubles with law enforcement earlier this year. Of the supporting actors in that age bracket, Kristen Stewart appears in a small role and looks noticeably younger, while Jena Malone has since branched out further into a mix of popular and independent fare. The older actors in the group soldier on in the industry, but their fortunes have also varied, with Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughan and Marcia Gay Harden among the group. And IMDB tells me director Penn is preparing his first directed film since this one for release in 2016.
I guess I wasn’t expecting to feel the distance from the narrative that I felt on this re-viewing. I’ll still continue to regard it as a key film in my West Coast life, but … I also feel how time has passed.
Remember the era of writing long emails to a select group of family and friends, when we weren’t all quite as instantly connected? I did just that in January 2004 on a Hampshire College outdoors trip to New Zealand, which focused on sea kayaking and hiking. Below is a selection from the second group email I sent on January 23, 2004.
…we boarded a van for a new journey across the mountains to Nelson, an artistic northern center of the South Island and gateway to the adventurous activities of several national parks in the area. We stopped in the downtown city area of Nelson (near the sea) for a few hours and I was impressed by the incredibly cosmopolitan and independent spirit of the downtown. Street performers and art exhibitions were everywhere I could look and everyone walking along the main street seemed very happy to be there. The historical British influence was certainly more direct there, with “Trafalgar St” being Main Street and several bands sounding just like British pop. A few hours later we continued the journey in the van up a nozzle of the coast to the Abel Tasman National Park, likely one of NZ’s most popular national parks and especially crowded in the summer months. The next five days were to be spent in the park “tramping” (hiking) from north to south, opposite the traditional tourist track.
I knew that we were in for something different and exciting as soon as the journey began the next morning. We boarded a water taxi (small boat) that was towed by a tractor down to the ocean shore, and then became self sufficient to drive us completely up the golden coast of the park. We passed high bluffs, rich surf, and several seal colonies en route to the top of the tourist track. The entire coast of the Tasman is a rich fine golden brown, unlike any other type of sand I had ever seen before. It was immensely refreshing to swim in after a hot day and beneficial just to look at when the route got sweaty. We began the tramping that day with a northerly loop around the park’s less-travelled northern quadrant. The track, or road, that we followed stayed quite close to the coast through several beaches and low sea forests. Eventually we reached a place called Seperation Point, which is one of the most northerly points of the South Island and had a quiet calmness to it as we gazed out from the rocks at the open, endless horizon to the north. The next day was a steeper incline up and down a large “hill” heading back to the coast but ultimately was no less rewarding. As we climbed the track, we could only see on the right side doughy bog-like marshland and water, and on the left was semi-Alpine green forest that snaked around back to the shore. Nonetheless it was very welcoming to get back to the water after hiking in the heat of the day. We stayed that night at a very family-oriented camp ground where at least 15 children biked through after dinner, asking us to help them with equipment for the hot scavenger hunt of the evening (which meant requesting books in a foriegn language, foriegn passports (!), and objects that could be used to make goods.) On the third day of tramping, we began to merge into the more commonly and frequently traversed coastal track. It was a LOT of hiking, at least 11 miles. The high point of that day was a coastal crossing that had to be done at least 1 1/2 hours before high tide otherwise it would flood. We ended up crossing in water anyway, which felt like a clamming trip in the bogs of the shore (and indeed we ended up stepping on several hundred clam shells.) It was a great delight to finally reach the campsite that day, even if it was raining. The next day brought another, shorter, estuary crossing and lots more of coastal beach scenery that also managed to mix in with the forest. I was intrigued by the dimensions and dynamics of a bridge that could only hold five people one way at a time and was swinging at least 50 feet above a river; the trail itself quickly plunged back down to semi-coastal level. That night, it was again a delight to be able to sleep right on the beach and be rocked to sleep by the energetic waves. The final day of tramping felt like coming full circle. The trail continued back down to where we had been before, and this time it was finally at a level gradient along the water. We saw endless blue and much boat traffic navigating the seas to the left of us. Eventually five short pedestrian bridges signalled the end of the line. Many of us had blisters from the tramping experience but I highly doubt that anyone was in bad spirits cause of the energy and faith of doing things together as a team.
The taxi returned to drive us 250 miles through snakey mountains and dramatic oceansides down the west coast of New Zealand. We saw more farmlands, wineries and even a whitewater rafting river before the road came alongside the ocean again. This time we were bordering the Tasman Sea, but the waves had all the energy of good Pacific hits. We stopped briefly at a tourist attraction called the Pancake Rocks, where large amounts of rocks have been so windswept and weather beaten, they have gradually become part of the sea, and eroded down into pancake shapes. Meanwhile the land surrounding them has started to sprout blowholes where water sneaks in to a small crevasse at high tide and then erupts back up as if part of a geyser. We continued down the coastal road to Greymouth, the West Coast’s hub city, for a two day stay. The locals call the west coast area New Zealand’s “wild west” and it was somewhat painfully obivous to see why. Greymouth was somewhat creepy and well past its prime, perhaps like an abandoned mine town might be in the Western United States. It only had a small town center that closed up shop every night at 5pm and no one seemed to go out of doors after then, even though the town is positioned at the mouth of a gusty river that guarantees great coastal views. The next day we found something to write home about in the town by participating in a “caveing” experience through an adventure company. We put on wetsuits once again and were bussed up to the hills to a deep subterranean cave. A guide led us through an experience of rafting by glowworm light, swimming in COLD water and hiking along different rocks. It was fun to see, but not unique, and I felt like the group was a little cast aside when two following tour groups came into the cave to do the exact same activities.
We left Greymouth via train on the spectacular TransScenic railway that is the most efficent connection between the East and West coasts of the central part of the South Island. It was a special thrill to sit back and feel the steam machine climb up the mountains to Arthur’s Pass, a small township and national park nestled right in the middle of the Southern Alps. The peaks and some of the villiages look almost identical to Switzerland, so the resemblance from place to place was very overt, and resonant. We spent one night in Arthur’s Pass, which is exactly like a charming Swiss villiage, only nestled here in the middle of the South Island instead. A small array of services and crafts line the main street, nestled in a ridge between high peaks with names like Avalanche Peak and Rollaston Pass. Disappearances of hikers are sadly not that uncommon there. The town itself had a pleasant character, with many natural amenities including a 50 foot (or so) tall waterfall that I saw on a short hiking experience today. We continued the journey on the train this afternoon, finishing the route back to Christchurch along mountain peaks, farmlands, and flat plains bordered by icey rivers before hitting the metropolitan area of the city for one more time. And indeed it is down to the last hurrah, as our journey home begins tomorrow (the 24th) at 1:30pm, but due to the “magic” of the International Dateline, will only conclude early morning of the 25th. It will certainly be a jarring temparature change, and probably the longest day ever (48 hours) for several of us. Then will get to have less than 24 hours back at home before returning to Hampshire, so hope the transition isn’t too abrupt…
For the second year in a row, I had an experience of watching someone I knew “way back when” act in her feature film debut that is attracting significant industry attention and critical praise. This year it is Desiree Akhavan, last year it was Lupita Nyong’o. Both connections stemmed from my undergraduate years at Hampshire College.
Akhavan and I were two of ten students enrolled in a highly memorable (IMO) semester long study of improvisation (pictured at right) at Smith, which maintains its official status as a women’s college but welcomes students from the other four colleges in the region (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) to take courses that might augment their studies at their home school.
In this particular class, taught by now professor-emeritus John Hellweg, the setting and the content were equally rewarding and challenging. We met once a week in the college’s boathouse, which doubles as a classroom, and went well beyond the familiar scope of improvising (comedy) into exercises that had considerably more meaning and depth. Elements of mysticism, storytelling, masks and inventive chose your own adventure were all part of the journey. We also expanded the role of the classroom, frequently leaving the boathouse for site-specific exercises such as seen in the photo above, near the college’s campus center. The class inspired me to incorporate elements of improvisation into my directing and character – building work, and I haven’t forgotten about that process today, even though my theatre work tends to be more in the front office than the rehearsal room.
It doesn’t feel easy to put into words what the experience is like to watch someone you knew earlier in their life on a big screen, though I am sure others have had similar feelings. Somewhere between awe, surprise, amusement, pride, acclaim, a little envy, some memory, and ultimately an appreciation. Those feelings all came to my mind as I enjoyed Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s feature film debut in a writer/director/lead actor trifecta. The film continues to play at Cinema Detroit this week and I’m pleased that my neighborhood cinema is one of a handful of theatres nationally showing the film.
Akhavan stars as Shirin, a 20-something Brooklyn resident struggling with personal identity issues after breaking up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), an at times forceful partner whom she “met cute” at a New Year’s party at some point in the recent past. Shirin aspires for a career in the film business, but after taking on a promising lead from a friend of a friend, she finds herself serving as a teacher to an afterschool program of very young (five year old) aspiring filmmakers. The events, along with her ongoing debate on if and whether to come out to her immediate family, add to a continuing sense of questioning for Shirin. But, with an assertive and bold temperament, she doesn’t sit around and mope, and part of the fun of the narrative becomes going along with Shirin to see what she does next, and how Akhavan’s own fresh writing deftly navigates gender, cultural and social stereotypes and expectations while putting a new spin on them against a contemporary New York City backdrop.
The film’s low-budget backdrop is apparent in some technical aspects of the story, such as lighting and sound, but doesn’t detract from the narrative. I might have appreciated some more clarity in the time shifting aspects of the narrative, but am not sure how that would’ve been best conveyed. As it stood in the finished film, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the action was in the linear timeline, and so it became like a mental jigsaw puzzle to put the different scenes together. Not a problem for me, just could have been smoother. Akhavan showed a committed hand in the direction of the film, eliciting assured and sharp performances from the whole ensemble along with herself. She demonstrates no hesitation in showing herself/the character in a potentially unflattering light, and ultimately, that added to Shirin’s endearing appeal and relatability, and is surely connected to why multiple press outlets have picked up on the film and her current contributions to pop culture.
And so how could I be anything other than impressed to see someone I knew way back when receive acclaim, interest and curiosity for her long-form debut? Here’s hoping that Akhavan has more stories up her sleeves and continues writing and producing in her assured, distinctive voice.
The Mercy Seat continues provocative playwright Neil LaBute’s early 2000s streak of intense, polarizing dramas that are heated and very much of the moment… and may be seen as dated in the present era.
I never saw this play performed, instead becoming aware of it sometime in 2004 when I placed an increased interest on LaBute’s work in preparation for directing The Shape Of Things at Hampshire College. The script focuses on a World Trade Center worker, Ben, who was coincidentally played by Hampshire alum Liev Schreiber in the original production. Ben happens to be away from the office on the faithful morning, and ends up at the home of his mistress, Abby, originally played by Sigourney Weaver. Ben discusses whether he wants to make the tragedy into an opportunity for him to run away from his existing life, believing that his family will think he has died. Abby tries to reason with him and take both sides of the argument, as they sit there in her apartment just one day after the attacks.
It would be interesting to know the production history of this play, as on the one hand it seems to have quickly dated, while on the other hand it continues to exist as a time capsule of a tense, uncertain time in US history when people didn’t know who to trust and couldn’t believe what had happened on that sunny Tuesday morning. And the US has moved so far away from that initial period of uncertainty — not in the best directions IMO — it sometimes seems like much longer than 13 years has passed.
Yesterday brought two currently rare examples of seeing people I know perform onstage – and in film. Initially thought it was the first time that had happened in over two years, but I now recall there have been a handful of occurrences since leaving the Bay Area (where that situation was much more frequent.)
In the afternoon I cheered on friends from The Penny Seats for their annual “Five Bowls of Oatmeal” performance given in collaboration with local non-profit 826michigan, which is itself, coincidentally, an offshoot of a San Francisco-based organization. This event was the culmination of several weeks of writing workshops with 826 volunteers and local middle school aged students, collaborating with the students to write short plays that (VERY IMPORTANT) had to have oatmeal incorporated into them. And the students succeeded! Many writers were in the audience yesterday to see their work and be (humorously and thoughtfully) interviewed in between some of the plays.
Of course for me there was an extra appeal in the performance: seeing my friends take on new and often outlandish roles, like a loaf of bread, a winter storm, a few babies, children who are budding actors, police officers and various types of food (just to name a few…) with everyone clearly having a great time loosening up and honoring the student’s written word. I can’t forget to mention the creative cartoon-style props and thoughtful attention to sound design that were an integral part of the complete performance.
In the evening I again ventured to the State Theater (quickly becoming my most frequently visited local cinema) to see the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave, featuring college friend Lupita Nyong’o in a key supporting role. I’m not exaggerating when I mention that Lupita has received considerable press attention for her work in this film, with corresponding Oscar buzz. A quick Google search yielded many recent examples including 3 from the past 10 days (!) which I will link to here:
The New York Times highlights Lupita’s fashion sense
The LA Times checks in with Lupita as the Oscar season begins
and most honorably…
The Springfield Republican interviews several of our Hampshire professors about their experiences working with Lupita.
The Republican’s opening comment that “But for those who knew her when she was a student at Hampshire College, the applause is nothing but expected” resonated with me for obvious reasons, as I was always impressed with Lupita’s dedication to her/our college pursuits that I observed, and am happy to observe support for her continuing to come from our alumni community.
Where both of the observations in this post stem from college theatre connections, it makes me feel very grateful for my time at Hampshire College. Relatedly, there’s a good chance I would not be here in Ann Arbor right now if I hadn’t gone to Hampshire… but that’s for an alternate reality science fiction-style post.
The film – 12 Years A Slave? Easily one of the most intense, visceral and harrowing films I’ve ever seen in the movie theatre. I’m sure those feelings were connected to knowing that the story is based on a real event, combined with a sad knowledge of slavery’s reality and heavy footprint in history. It’s a film that generates quiet contemplation (there are no words, really) although I am sure it will be a recurring presence in the film awards season ahead.
An esteemed cast gave power to the characters, with Chiwitel Ejofor in the devastating lead role (and seeming to make a comeback of sorts after being less visible on screen for the past several years), easily rising to the front of Best Actor conversations, while several well-known actors offered supporting portrayals of varying importance to the story.
I had some quibbles with a few technical aspects of the film, but can’t deny that director Steve McQueen brought a powerful tone, emotional resonance and consistency to the story.
“12 Years” is definitely not an easy film to absorb, but one that is clearly a must-see, if you are up for it.
(photo by Davi Napoleon originally appeared with this article)
What is an ensemble? Who is an ensemble?
Some may ask that question with curiosity, delight, befuddlement or satisfaction. Some may not know the answer. Some may give a vivid definition in a few words or sentences. A unit or group of complementary parts that contribute to a single effect, for instance.
And some may be like Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats, and define what it means to be an ensemble. Though the very essence of that ensemble — the teamwork, the passion, the excitement — may not be immediately apparent to the audience member or casual fan in the theatre, it is always there with The Penny Seats. This ensemble works together onstage and off. They integrate the group into the fabric of the rest of their lives, starting with family and reaching right out to professional pursuits of law, litigation, news analysis, healthcare, dance, programming, teaching, music and beyond.
Their focus centers on the stage, as best seen in part of their mission statement, which reveals “We’re performers and players, minimalists and penny-pinchers. We think theatre should be fun and stirring, not stuffy or repetitive. We believe going to a show should not break the bank. And we find Michigan summer evenings beautiful.” They even have a theme song that sings, “The Penny Seats are Nothing But Trouble”, with gleeful lyrics.
I was introduced to the Penny Seats sometime in late 2010, when my college friend Russ shared the news that he, his sister, brother in law, and other friends planned to create a new theatre company in Ann Arbor. In our undergraduate theatre pursuits, many of us were intrigued with the idea of creating a theatre company. Some friends in Boston got right to it in 2006, while other young graduates like me chose to navigate the professional world. It’s an open secret how that approach can require frequent geographic movement, and so I happily migrated around the country from Massachusetts to California and back again, accumulating production credits.
There was a natural excitement over the concept of The Penny Seats coming to reality; company co-founder and current president Lauren London reflected on that process here. I gladly contributed to the group’s initial Kickstarter campaign. I continued to pursue my professional theatre work, and this year, that led to a natural partnership of my coming to Ann Arbor to lend experience and enthusiasm to The Penny Seats as the producer for their third summer season. Over the course of the rehearsal process for Little Me, I’ve reflected on the group’s development.
In 2011 I sat in the West Park audience and admired the very first performance of The Penny Seats, noting “the free spirited versatility that the cast embraced, throwing themselves into their multiple roles with enthusiasm and commitment…The best thing about an opening night is knowing that the show can and will get stronger from here. I’m sure that will be the case with the Penny Seats, who wear their hearts and enthusiastic energy on their sleeves, their theatrical energy in their souls and their all-abiding dramatic flair around them, physically, at the West Park Band Shell in Ann Arbor.”
In 2012 I returned to catch the group in a different environment, as they performed indoors on a cold Leap Day night in Ann Arbor to find out “What Corbin Knew”. This time I noted that “The buoyancy and open-air theatrics of last summer have been exchanged for a tight playing space and awareness of unstated nuances. In several cases, what was not explained (or rather what was imagined) had more impact than plot dialogue and wordplay.Structurally, the show appears to be a comedy at first glance, but the director and the cast succeed in holding a slightly uneasy, uncertain tone for the first act that left me knowing something was going to happen. And yet, I still got enveloped in the farcical comedy, so that when the tone shifted, it came as a genuine surprise.”
Later in 2012, the group returned to West Park for a classic musical, “She Loves Me”. I was unable to attend the production, but by all accounts it was a case of the company hitting its stride. Certainly the production photographs indicate this confidence, with bright colors popping off the stage and actors comfortably in character in small and larger group scenes.
In between their shows, the group has made time to give back to the community around Ann Arbor. They launched the theatrical side of their game with a winter cabaret in 2011, and followed on with performances given for the 826michigan local nonprofit, as well as the Ann Arbor Senior Center. The tradition continues this summer with an encore Senior Center performance on July 21.
But most importantly, today The Penny Seats are once again ready to present an energetic, classic musical to the Ann Arbor community. Little Me tells the story of Belle, a girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” who finds her way over to the “right side”, through a series of captivating misadventures, on the way to her true love, Noble Eggleston. The audience is in on the joke, as most of her male suitors are played by the same actor. In this production, versatile Roy Sexton rises to that challenge, alongside Lauren London as Young Belle.
The group has again reached into a treasure chest of plays in pulling out this musical by Neil Simon. Who would have thought that Simon, best known for his New York comedies and various odd couplings, would have written a musical? It was certainly news to me when I first learned of the piece. Modern audiences may be unaware that the Little Me story began life as a novel, written by Patrick Dennis (also a named character in the musical), published in 1961. The best-selling book took its topic from popular “I/you/we can do it!” books of the 1940’s and 50’s, but was intended as a parody of those same publications. Clearly the material caught the eye of Simon and associates, where the musical followed the very next year.
In 2013 it seems that Little Me is enjoying a revival of interest. San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon, a company charged with “presenting intimately produced performances of classic and rarely performed musical works”, staged the musical in May. A London, England, revival is planned for August. Looking ahead, Little Me will be featured in the Broadway Encores! program in early 2014.
All of which to say, The Penny Seats made a prescient and popular choice to stage Little Me right here in Ann Arbor throughout the month of July. Come on down to West Park and join in the fun. I’ll see you there.