“‘Scuse me, you speak English?” the guy in the winter jacket asks me as he pulls his cell away from his ear. There’s some urgency to his voice, gravity.
In my neighborhood, I could, I suppose, be mistaken for a Russian or a Pole or a Serb, so the odds are decent that English is not my first language. But that I don’t speak it all? That seems a bit ridiculous. “Yeah.” There’s not much else to say.
“Let me call you right back,” he says into the phone as he snaps it shut. He drops the phone in the pocket of his jacket and pulls out an inhaler. “I live right over there,” and he points at a yellow brick apartment building, “and my daughter is at the clinic,” and he points in another direction, up the street toward the clinic by the college, and he pulls the medication part of the inhaler back. (more…)
As an exercise in breaking down complex ideas into their component pieces, I used to play music in the Introduction to Theater class I taught once upon a decade. I started with Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection.”
I followed with the sort-of joke band, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, covering “The Rainbow Connection,” in a punk style.
Then I played The Clash’s “London Calling,” and I asked them, what do you think about when you think about punk?
I’ve got these credentials – a worn tool belt (he can do carpentry!); a doctorate (he’s schmart!); a non-profit (he’s an artiste!); a manuscript (he’s a writer!). Credentials say “I’m qualified.” Credentials say, “Trust me.”
Then there’s that joke – what do you call the worst student out of med school? You call him “Doctor.” (more…)
I am not currently related to anyone serving in the U.S. armed forces, although that will change in a year when my niece marries her fella.
During World War II, 8.6% of the US population served in the military. Now it’s 0.5%. In other words, it’s about 17 times less likely that you know someone who’s actively serving.
My experience of wars – Afghanistan and Iraq; the state of violence that is Libya; the state of threatening non-violence that is North Korea; and of the difficulty and deaths that occur in training that the public doesn’t hear about generally – all this, for me, is entirely mediated. Television, radio, internet. That’s it. I understand these experiences and individual lives intellectually and even then from a long, long remove. That includes the Army’s “Army of One” and the Marines’ “The Few The Proud” media campaigns, by the way, along with every platitude-filled politician who ever uttered the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice.” Most politicians, like most Americans, understand these experiences the way that I do – through someone else’s words.
Two weeks ago I saw The National Scottish Theatre’s production of Black Watch, and last week convinced two other people to go and see it. The script is based on interviews with soldiers who were members of the Scottish regiment, The Black Watch, and served in Iraq. It premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006 or 07. With very minimal use of physical theatrical devises (a tricked-out pool table, some scaffolding, a one-time use of flying harnesses) and extensive use of physical staging and sound, the company focuses on the world of soldiers – these soldiers – and not on the immediacy of this war. This war was only the last battle that the Black Watch fought in, as they make clear from their history of the company and the present of the company.
The soldiers spend a lot of time being bored. They resent that most people already have their minds made up about the kind of people who go into the army. One particularly short-fused soldier shouldn’t have gone back for a second tour, one man explains to their interviewer after their third tour; he resigned, but they lost his paperwork. That’s what they do, he says, they lose your paperwork. They’re all a little broken from their experiences.
It is not a performance about the horrors of killing. It’s much more about the difficulties of surviving – not just the enemy, but the people who are your fellow citizens to some degree. The final minutes of the show manage to be horrifying and beautiful at the same time, a relentless Gallipoli of marching. And at the end, all I could think was that this was the closest I come to war. This and Doonesbury, when I character I know and casually care about loses a limb.
I wonder how well this production speaks to soldiers. I wonder how many of us in the audience has even second-hand experience with the wars, a family member or a friend. It’s not that I’m not grateful to be spared the experience – I am – but I suspect that if more of us knew what it was to serve in the military, then we’d think harder and plan longer before puffing our chests out.
Does that mean we wouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan, Iraq, the Koreas, Libya, or Grenada? No, I’m not suggesting that. We might still come to the same conclusion. I’m suggesting that, as a country, we’re disconnected from the people we ask to fight our battles.
All 11 parts of the Black Watch are available on YouTube. Here’s the link to part 1. Heavy accents and no subtitles, so strap yourselves in.
Update: I’ve got proper numbers now for how many people did and do serve in the military, so the 2nd paragraph is changed. These stats come from the May 2011 issue of Harper’s, in the index (p.15). For the 8.6%, they cite the U.S Army Center of Military History; and for the 0.5%, the U.S. Department of Defense (p.82). I don’t have hyperlinks for either, or for the index itself.
I have to begin this with a confession and a commercial. First, the confession: I am a fuddy-duddy. It’s nearly 10pm on a Friday night and I am triumphantly home and looking forward to bed. That’s who I am.
The commercial: think back to halcyon days when you might have heard these lines on one of the four television channels available.
“You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”
“You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!”
V/O song: “Reese’s… Peanut Butter Cups…”
Now swap out “hollow plastic noodle” for chocolate and “clarinet” for peanut butter, and that’s the kind of music I was listening to tonight. That’s right. Free range jazz. We’ve just come back from Transistor, where we saw Extraordinary Popular Delusions. Two weeks ago it was Mucca Pazza at Mayne Stage. Four weeks before that it was Gang of Four at the Metro.
Let me put this in simple numbers: in 2011, I have already seen 3 live shows. This is more than 2010 and 2009 combined. I think we saw David Byrne in 2007 or ’08, maybe? In general, I haven’t been a huge live music fan. The David Byrne concerts (Milwaukee and Prague) were great. At Archa in Prague we could dance but in Milwaukee it was all sit-down at the Pabst. Live versions of the songs sounded like the songs we knew with different arrangements – not a far cry from a concert album, really.
Gang of Four was a slightly different deal. First of all, I’m late to punk. I like it, and the post-punk of GoF, but I don’t know most of the music very well. I have saved a voice mail of one of my friends singing “I Love a Man in Uniform” on my phone – a capella – to remind me of GoF’s more famous melodies. The sound mix at the Metro was pretty awful and the details of the music was hard to make out, but for the first time, I enjoyed the performance of the music rather than trying to get into the music itself. Kind of a revelation.
Mucca Pazza is a punk marching band. I saw them outdoors last year at Global Union (and if you’re in or near Milwaukee at the end of September, you should really mark this weekend on your calendar) and was frankly a little scared for my eardrums of catching them indoors. Wise, but unnecessary. They were fantastic and fun. They’ve also got cheerleaders, one of whom is a performer at the circus arts oriented Actors Gymnasium, so there!
Back to Extraordinary Popular Delusions – the free range jazz I spoke of before.
I’m used to liking things for their virtuosity, being able to tell how good someone is. At a David Byrne-live album sort of concert, that’s pretty easy. It’s a polished show, the sound mix is set, even when they play off album and go with Goran Bregovic. Gang of Four were clearly skilled, but the sound made it difficult to appreciate. By contrast, their opening act, Hollerado, had a much less polished performance. They were fine – they were good – but their obvious effort made them seem feel like they were just trying too hard. The confidence that GoF brought to the stage was part of what made their show so good.
Mucca Pazza has some skilled folks as well, no doubt about it. They promenade into the house, playing instruments in and among the audience as they filter their way onstage, all the while doing big band orchestral numbers with mad abandon. And our free range jazz musicians? They had an intellectual thing going. It wasn’t pleasant music, necessarily, but it was incredibly interesting. I could bring the drums into focus, or switch over to keyboard or bass, or clari-noodle (that was actually only about 2 minutes…). All four musicians ran a split focus, concentrating on their own playing and attending to the sound bubble that they collectively created.
I hadn’t really thought about confidence in music performance before as separate from virtuosity. It’s unlike what I’ve imagined when I think about listening to and enjoying music and sound.
I’m stuck on the line between doing, action, and performance.
Basically, the problem is trying to write something that relates to an artistic performance and not necessarily how we act in our daily lives. Because I’d really like to think about some other things besides my friends dying, and I suspect other people would, too.
Part of what I’d like to perform for you is Competence. I don’t have my form down in this different vein, so rather than subject you to something to long, I’m going to sit on it for a while and leave it at this: if you’re in the Twin Cities, go to the Fringe, go see many, many shows, and include in your selection Your Mother Dances at the Southern, which I saw tonight. Good, fun, sexy.
Dream of competency.