Thursday, March 29, 2012

An audience talk-back

Meg Taintor of Whistler in the Dark Theatre asks:

When you enter our theatre as an audience member, what is it you are looking for?

I am looking for someone else’s story to occupy my mind fully for a time in a way where I don’t mind the occupation. I find that possible with many sorts of live performance, whether theater or dance or music or circus, though theater obviously tends toward a more structured narrative than other performance modes.

I am looking for my own story and the stories of those close to me to stop occupying my mind. Not because I am unhappy with those stories; I do not seek less theater when life is going well. But it’s why I hate a distracted or unattentive audience, and why I dislike the multitasking involved in having food or drinks during a performance. I want to forget about myself.

Ultimately, that tends to make audience interaction less successful for me than I want it to be. I’ve read more than I care to about the barrier created by the proscenium, but I like the comfort of being an anonymous audience member and the pretense that I am an observer of the theatrical performance rather than a necessary component of the experience. That comfortable pretense allows me to embrace my role properly, to laugh out loud, to clap enthusiastically, to gasp or startle or otherwise reflect back to the stage. Of course this is contradictory, but performance anxiety is precisely why I am on my side of the proscenium. I want the illusion of invisibility. The thrust stage and the myriad of seating arrangements employed in black box and non-theater spaces can work wonders, but primarily if the audience remains safely wrapped in relative darkness.

I want to see performers who are fully immersed in the performance, even when they aren’t in the spotlight.

I would love to find a unifying theme to what I want from the theater, but I enjoy farces and musicals and dramas, all for many different reasons.

Meg cites Simon Callow’s claim that performers should feel compassion towards the audience rather than love. While I wouldn’t want to see that compassion slide towards pity, I do appreciate a sense that the production has considered the needs of the audience to see and hear the performers and avoid serious physical discomfort. There are far deeper reasons to want compassion from the performers, of course—to ask the performers to help us as audience members to see their stories, not just their faces.

I want to be able to keep track of the characters, to follow their individual arcs, to have them be distinct from each other. And I want to care about at least some of them. The notion of compassion as an essential element of theater goes both ways. The characters on stage are generally strangers, and feeling compassion towards strangers can be a challenge in our hectic and too often hostile society. When theater allows us as audience members to feel compassion towards strangers, it restores part of our humanity. That may be a heavy burden to ask of the theater, but the wonder is in how often it succeeds.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What are the chances?

Last week I read the new Matt Ruff novel about 9/11, an alternate history focused on examining its own premise.

On Tuesday evening, a huge billowing cloud of smoke displaced the usual traffic in photo after photo looking down Newbury Street and Boylston Street. The view from across the river showed the smoke spreading over Boston. People were evacuated from a large swath of the city, work and life were disrupted for tens of thousands of people, a number of roads and subway stations were closed, and there were early warnings that the smoke might be particularly harmful though the government was quick to dispute that (while also asking people to stay out of the area).

Then I went to a show last night. I arrived early and talked a bit with the person who was filling in as house manager since the house manager was having trouble getting to the theater. Conversations as people arrived were about trying to reach friends and colleagues, traffic disruptions, power disruptions, and cancelled performances.

This all led up to seeing the show “Recent Tragic Events” last night, which was set in an apartment the day after 9/11. The lead character is trying to reach her twin sister, who lives in New York and has not been in contact. A show set the day after the city I know was filled with smoke, which I’m watching the day after the city I know is filled with smoke. And it was absolutely creepy how easy it was for me to go back to that time. Was it all the priming and context? Was it the television on the set playing CNN from 9/12/2001 for two hours? Was it the powerful performance from Aimee Rose Ranger? Regardless, I was relieved to return home to my infant son, to my wife of more than 10 years, and to a television which is no longer tuned to CNN.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

All bets are off

Back when the end of greyhound racing was being discussed in Massachusetts, it was clear that the dog tracks had no reason to stay open except in the hopes of getting broader gaming licenses for slots or full-blown casinos. I wrote to the governor back then asking that he simply let them trade in the racing licenses for slots licenses, even though I’d rather have neither around us.

The dog track owners insisted that greyhound racing was critically important for various reasons (social, economic, cultural), just as they’ve argued in other states. The same track owners had spent decades falsely insisting that greyhounds were vicious by nature and unfit as pets. Widespread public adoption of former racing greyhounds would have led to widespread public scrutiny of how the tracks were mistreating greyhounds, as it eventually did. Instead, racing dogs had routinely been killed when their racing careers were over (at one to five years old). Greyhound racing was a brutal and dishonest industry.

In Massachusetts, we closed down the dog tracks. In several other states, they gave the dog tracks broader gaming licenses on the condition that they keep racing greyhounds as much as 6 days a week. After all, the track owners had all these compelling arguments for the importance of greyhound racing. It didn’t matter that there was no longer any real audience, or that the dogs were going to continue to be mistreated, frequently injured, and sometimes killed.

Now that the dog tracks have their broader gaming licenses in those states, the track owners would like to keep their horse OTB, their slots, and their casinos, and close down the greyhound racing. Greyhound advocates who have been struggling to shut down greyhound racing are confused by having these new allies. I imagine that state officials who believed the track owners when they were passionately arguing for preserving greyhound racing are confused as well.

I’m conflicted about what the right response is. The track owners are admitting that they got their gaming licenses by lying. The lying is bad but common. Admitting it is good and uncommon. But if we don’t punish them for lying even when they admit it, then how do we convince anyone that lying is wrong? But if we punish them for admitting it while turning a blind eye to everyone else who is lying, then are we really serving the cause of greater honesty?

The one thing I’m certain of is that the wrong response, even though it’s the easy response, is to force them to keep the greyhounds racing. That just punishes the dogs along with the track owners, and the dogs deserve better. They always have.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Counting noses

Two recent MBTA stories collided in my head: one story about MBTA bus drivers frequently not bothering to have passholders actually scan their passes on the bus, and another story about the MBTA doing yet another desultory crackdown on fare evaders.

The first problem isn’t directly a revenue issue for the MBTA, but it does lead to systematically undercounting ridership. That makes it hard to know how many people will actually be impacted by service cuts, hard to know where to add service, and harder to make the argument that the MBTA is worth funding because it serves a lot of people. When the MBTA says that they want to eliminate Lisa’s bus route because not enough people ride it, it’s frustrating to see the bus driver wave people onto the bus without scanning their passes.

A solution to the first problem is to count monthly passholders as a certain minimum number of rides each month. If the scanned rides on a pass are under the monthly minimum, then add the remaining rides to the ridership numbers. You can allow monthly passholders to choose a few routes and stops that they want their rides to be counted towards, and balance that with the actual pattern of scanned rides.
The second problem is a revenue issue, particularly when the fine for fare evasion is a tiny percentage of the evader’s fare savings multiplied by the evader’s chance of being caught. If adding up the occasional ticket is far less than regularly paying the fare, then fare evasion is not a surprising problem.

A couple of obvious solutions are to increase the fine for fare evasion and to increase enforcement. That way you capture both sides of the probability multiplication. But whatever level of fine and enforcement we decide on, I’d like to see one more item added to the equation: add the cost of two monthly passes and give the fare evader a pass from that date until the end of the following month. An important goal should be to change the fare evader’s habit of bypassing the fare collection system. By giving (selling) the fare evader a pass for the next 5-8 weeks, they have no excuse not to scan their pass for a while. Perhaps that will be enough to change a few habits.

Papa, where do posters come from?

Maybe we should expand tipping

IRS representatives all give out their 10-digit ID numbers when they pick up the phone now. Do you think they ever google their numbers to see if anyone is mentioning them? Should we start yelp-rating individual IRS agents? Is there a market for Ok, I’ll go first.

IRS representative 1000233200 in the individual accounts department is lazy, rude, and wrong.

IRS representative 1002577699 in the tax law department is very pleasant. Not in the department I needed, sadly. She helps people who can’t read. (Well, she helps taxpayers who can’t read. I don’t know who helps 1000233200.)

Crossing the 5-hour threshold and more than 10 people for a simple tax ID number assignment is what finally got me to start writing down ID numbers. Without paying attention, my impression was that they were all terrible. I think that impression was due to some of them being terrible and none of them being able to solve the problem. When I look at the two above, terrible only describes one out of two.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My town

Monday, March 5, 2012

What I’m learning at TEDx Somerville

A quick preface: I really appreciate the opportunity to listen to every one of these people speak, and I know they put a lot of work, effort, and energy into their presentations. I could not do what any of them did. Even the talks that I personally didn’t like were undoubtedly moving and illuminating to other people who were there, and I’m glad there was a huge mix. The following is very personal reactions.

Mayor Joe Curtatone: I wish that the person who ran my city was someone like this who values his residents, who values diversity, who values information and ideas, and who believes that an evolving world requires evolving responses. I have a hard time understanding why people in my city vote for a guy whose primary skill is gladhanding and who hates progress. Lesson: my mayor really sucks by comparison.

Dan Rothstein: Asking questions is a skillset. You can learn to ask questions, to change questions from closed to open, to reframe questions with the assumption that there is a positive answer, and to prioritize questions. And this skillset empowers people. The memorable graph was one showing that reading and writing skills both increase sharply through around age 10 and then plateau with only slight increases to age 18, while question skills peak at age 4 and then decrease sharply through age 18. Lesson: What lesson would you take from this?

Georgy Cohen: Personal stories are often far more interesting to the person telling them than to their audience. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your family is the only odd one. Lesson: an amazing title for your talk is insufficient.

Lenni Armstrong: Our combined waste and storm sewer system is old and horrible. Pavement is bad. It took 45 amateurs an entire day to remove the asphalt from a back yard, whereas it took 1 professional one day to remove the asphalt from ours (by hand). Permeable surfaces are better. Over 70% of Somerville is impermeable. Lesson: impermeable pavement sucks.

Ray Matsumiya: I’d love to hear more about his work creating personal contacts between Somerville and Morocco. It sounds extremely successful, and an inspiring story about how a couple of people can make a huge difference to hundreds of people. Lesson: Being insanely nervous makes you a less compelling speaker. I could never give a TEDx talk.

Kelly Creedon: Foreclosures suck. People are ashamed to talk about their problems, whereas solutions and peaceful revolt can only happen when people break their inclination to silence. Lesson: never doubt the power of a sufficiently mobilized populace to videotape their own suppression by the banks and the police while still being evicted.

Video of Drew Dudley: Holy crap this guy is a phenomenal speaker. Lollipop moments. Seriously, watch this video. I’m really glad I did.

Schuyler Towne: An interesting talk about ways to look at the significance and meaning of locks. One of the few talks I might go watch again on video.

Grooversity and Marcus Santos: Drumming performance, very loud, good for audience participation, bad for eardrums. Lesson: bring earplugs.

Video of Gever Tulley: He runs a camp where kids actually build things. If you give kids tools and materials and very light guidance, they can build things, enjoy building things, enjoy failing at building things, solve problems, and build more things. Lesson: kids can build more things with power tools.

Ross Lohr: This one is really complicated. Giving things (shoes, shirts) away to poor countries destroys their local economies revolving around those things. But isn’t that like arguing that single-payer health care is problematic simply because it would force all the leeches in our health insurance system to find other employment doing something else? Shirts go from here to Africa, get remade there into new shirts or bags or ties, get reimported here and sold to rich liberals at very high prices. And you should feel good about it because they pay something to poor people to do the work, which empowers them. Lesson: if you charge enough, you can call anything fair trade.

Joe Grafton: Support local businesses. Buy local efforts are good. This is very old news to me, but good to have a chance to cheer and clap in person for a local guy who’s been instrumental in supporting our local buy local campaigns at a local conference featuring local speakers, a local audience, and local organizers. Lesson: local.

Jessie Banhazl and Brendan Shea: Decent tag-team presentation dynamics about building and maintaining a rooftop farm for a restaurant. They talked a lot about their process and step-by-step experiences, rather than focusing on lessons learned. That doesn’t play well. They overwatered, they used the wrong soil mix, they didn’t figure out how to work with the restaurant well, and they did very little practical planning. Then they decided to improve the next year. Um, congrats? Lesson: don’t pay professionals at their usual rate to do new things they have no experience with.

Clarence Smith, Jr.: Cute talk about how knowledge spreads in a community, focused on the traditional barbershop culture. People who meet regularly and swap stories actually learn things that way! Lesson: molasses makes better Kool-Aid.

Brian Whitman: How do we discover new music? He’s been very involved in the efforts to find computerized approaches to discovering new music, but gave no real info or ideas. Felt like a huge missed opportunity for a fun talk. Lesson: pretend your audience wants to learn something, and see if you have something to teach them.

Jenee Halstead: Singer-songwriter performance. Must get her CD.

Video of Graham Hill: Less stuff = more happiness. Less stuff doesn’t mean no stuff. Good speaker, a little extreme in examples, nothing really new. Lesson: give away more stuff.

Daniel Hadley: Can a city government make you happy? Talked a bit about what Somerville found when surveying residents about happiness and then tried to correlate that to other factors. This has a very long way to go before being persuasive, but he’s right that an important step is to start collecting data. Lesson: you can find happy people in the strangest places, even in East Somerville. And most people claim to be pretty happy.

Ruth Allen: Open government examples from a few other places in the world. Allow citizens to participate in budget discussions (here the best we ever do is make the budget visible). Start public debate with the person who is most downtrodden (here the best we ever do is pretend to listen to empowered community groups). Give unused buildings to community groups (here the best we ever do is sell them with tons of use conditions). All of these ideas could be productively adapted to our country. It’s a shame we hate helping people. Lesson: we are nowhere near being the great democracy we pretend to be.

Erza Glenn: Interactive websites can provide an easy and interesting way for residents to contribute information about their communities. Left unaddressed: how to vet the info, and what to do with it? I’ve seen a number of these efforts over the past few years, and haven’t yet seen anything useful done with the info collected. Lesson: collecting data is a good first step, but is hardly a last step.

Sam Sommers: Great speaker, teaches at Tufts. Must find out what he teaches, consider auditing. Talked about our bad tendencies when we’re in large groups to avoid taking individual responsibility, to assume that someone else will deal with a problem, to assume that someone else would have noticed if there really were a problem. Lesson: Sam Sommers is a great speaker. Oh, and don’t be a sheep.

Alex Feldman: We need to teach and practice body language and non-verbal communication. We’re becoming more and more word-focused. He, on the other hand, is almost as entertaining a performer as he thinks he is. Lesson: make faces at your child.

Keith Fullerton Whitman: What the hell was that? Uninteresting electronic music with no explanation. And way too loud. Please, God, get me out of here. [Lisa says he was actually making her nauseous. Reminded her of stories about the military weaponizing noise.] Lesson: when your ears start telling you to throw up, don’t try to tough it out in the fourth row—just get up and leave.

Mike Norton: We much more highly value things we put effort into ourselves. Funny examples about origami and small Lego models. How can we use this to get people invested in things they might otherwise throw out, such as medical appointment reminders? Two small examples: a reminder postcard that includes areas for kids to color in, so parents have to keep it on their fridge; a reminder postcard that hides the test you need behind a scratch-off stripe. You need a ========= because that condition affects 1 out of 6 adults. This talk is the one that I came here for. Lesson: we care about things we put even a little work into, so don’t try to make everything be no work at all.

Aatish Salvi: Our public tax and financial policies favor the rich and hate the poor. That’s bad. We should change it. Numbers to back it up and horrify decent people, but I don’t think most people respond to numbers. Lesson: poor people wouldn’t all be so poor if we didn’t put so much work into keeping them poor.

Wig Zamore: Air pollution next to highways is extremely bad for health, but nobody regulates placing housing right next to a highway. Living, working, biking, walking, any activity next to a highway (or next to diesel rail) is very bad for asthma, heart damage, and heart attacks, and many other biological systems. Lesson: don’t live here.

Monica Poole: Please stop screaming into your fucking microphone! Oh, thank God, she found her inside voice. She’s actually a compelling and passionate speaker about Occupy Boston, self-empowerment, community building, horizontal democracy, open source democracy, collaborative creation when the collaborators keep changing. Best line: “No, Occupy Boston didn’t have a list of demands. By the way, neither does TED.” Lesson: we are nowhere near being the great democracy we pretend to be.

Seth Itzkan: Different livestock management practices can actually make livestock really good for land rather than really bad for land. Very hopeful. Lesson: keep your mind open.

Chris Templeman: In the future, every object in your home could be a work of art. Community-supported manufacturing, allowing us to shift our expenditures from tooling to materials, design, and production labor. Interesting resonance with the “less stuff” talk. I wish he seemed to be aware of kickstarter and similar methods for doing precisely community-supported manufacturing (and a little more aware of the lack of feedback in CSA). He really went off the rails (in a familiar and comfortable way) when he claimed that by avoiding the tooling costs for plastics manufacturing we could keep our total costs the same and pay designers and workers much more. We could, just like we could do that every time a technological advance reduces our manufacturing costs. But we don’t, and we won’t. On the other hand, he’s exactly right when he points out that people are willing to pay quite a lot more for local high-quality food, and that we can expand that model to other arenas. Lesson: support kickstarter.

Lis Pardi: Libraries have lots of interesting future directions. Rent an expert. Borrow a cake pan. Tools, car seats, pets. Maybe buildings aren’t necessary, move librarians out into the community. Librarians could be in coffee shops, maker spaces, coworking spaces, survivalist bunkers. Deconstruct the concepts of library and librarian. Really, librarians could be useful, if only you would use them! Closing line: “Thank you, and good luck with the zombies.” Lesson: libraries in other places are doing much more interesting things than our local library is.

Emperor Norton Band: Seen them too often, and running late. Time to go home.