November 2011 Archives

Isaac Butler on Brooklyn Babylon

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Isaac Butler is a spectacular being. He makes his own ice cream and his hair is made out of several cloud species. Isaac is a 2nd year MFA in non-fiction, but has an extensive background in theatre and directing. His awesome blog (not on tumblr, but it's cool) has been featured in important places, like the New York Times and the Guardian online. For the past couple weeks, he's been whizzing back and forth between Minneapolis and New York City to direct Brooklyn Babylon (watch the video, guys), an entirely new breed of play that is part live painting, part musical performance, part projected animation. Isaac's facebook statuses from all the airplanes were priceless. Priceless! Anyway,

Question Bundle #1:

How did you get involved with the project? Were you asked to be the director? This might sound silly, but what does your role as director entail for this particular "play"?

Brooklyn Babylon began with composer Darcy James Argue with whom I've been friends for years. Actually, we met through our writing. I recognized his partner (a kick ass political blogger) on the subway one day and met him through that. Then we started corresponding on each other's blogs. Then we became real life friends. I also used some of his music in a play I directed, and which I guess he enjoyed. Anyway, when he and BAM started talking about developing a show, he told me that he wanted me to be a part of it. Around the same time,Danijel Zezelj came on board as the visual artist and creator of the story we'd be telling. My job was actually both more and less than being the director. In the performance world as in the opera world, directors are often primary creators of the work. Their staging and design concepts are part of the process. I was brought on as the Directorial Consultant. What that meant was that while Danijel developed the story and Darcy the music, I was consulting with them, helping them figure out what narrative beats the audience would need, things like that. Once we actually got into the theater, my job became to realize Darcy and Danijel's intent in terms of what the shape, look and flow of the entire event would be. So once we got into the space, my role was more traditionally what a director does, which is to say being the person whose eye is on the whole project, working with the various designers to make a cohesive work. I also staged the beginning and the ending of the piece, which are the only times there are physical movements on stage.

What make this one different is that there were no actors. There were 18 musicians, Darcy conducting, Danijel on stage painting and a stop motion animated film going on. My job was to help facilitate the integration of these elements so that they told our story and also followed what Darcy and Danijel wanted aesthetically.

Bag of Questions #2:

Can you tell me a little about BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music)? Based on the reviews I read, it sounds like BAM is an important part of the contemporary arts community?

In the live performance world, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is an essential, major part of the ecosystem. They do two seasons. In the Fall (roughly from September to Christmas) BAM does the Next Wave festival, which brings in acts from all over the world to do one week runs of big crazy shows. Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's opera Einstein on the Beach was part of an early Next Wave, as was Laurie Anderson's United States I-IV. Many of Mark Morris's pieces have debuted there. They've had a long standing relationship with the composer Steve Reich and choreographers like Trisha Brown and Anna Teresa De Keersmacher. Basically, all of my childhood artistic heroes got their big breaks at BAM.

Next Wave is somewhat divided between bringing the latest projects of the people I call the BAM All Stars and debuting new work by people you might not have heard of. We were definitely in the latter camp, and we weren't the only ones. The week before we went up, there was a puppet show about Shackleton performed by a troop of relative newcomers called Phantom Limb. And often they'll bring groups that people don't know of here who are really big deals back in their home countries.

The other half of the year for the Spring Season, BAM brings in more traditional fare, often imports from Britain of new Shakespeare productions, things like that. The Patrick Stewart MacBeth that was on Broadway was at BAM first and then transferred, for example. So they also do this upper echelon of more traditional work.

Although I grew up in DC, my grandparents were huge fans of BAM and would take me to see things there. I remember most vividly seeing Mark Morris's "The Hard Nut" which is his hilarious take on the Nutcracker featuring sets designed by Charles Burns.

Tangle of Questions #3:

Why graphic art and music together? Why these particular artists (Darcy James Argue + Daniijel Zezelj) together?

You'd have to ask Darcy that to get the real reason, as it was his idea, but he wanted to do something that told a story, something he'd never done with his music. He also didn't want the show to get too clogged with extraneous stuff. He wanted a simple pairing of elements that could go together and feel intentional rather than random. He and I are also huge comic book readers (I've taught comic books at the U and I'm teaching them again at the Loft in the spring). He had this notion that maybe by playing narrative driven music and showing images, a story could emerge. Once Danijel-- who makes his living as a comic book artist-- got involved, the idea became much more solidified. So they decided there would be a stop motion animated film playing the whole time, but rather than having a lot of moving pictures, the stop motion was actually of each image's construction. (This excerpt (above) is worth 1000 words on this subject). This was then combined with live painting of a cityscape that went on behind the film.

So while I can speak less to where the idea came from for Darcy, I feel very confident making sweeping claims about why it worked, given that whether or not it would work was the gamble we were taking. Scott McCloud has this theory that comic books work in part because your brain is connecting the dots between the various panels. You see The Hulk winding up his fist and then in the next panel you see the punch already completed as Wolverine goes flying across a Canadian meadow and your mind fills in the action of the punch instantaneously, without you even realizing it. He calls this phenomenon "closure," a term he adapts from Gestalt Psychology. One of the issues with adapting comics into films is that film basically doesn't use closure at all, and the imaginative process of closure is one of the most pleasurable forms of imaginative work around.

In other words, the white space between the panels (called the gutter) is where a lot of the art actually is, just like in the white space surrounding paragraphs in many lyric essays. What Darcy and Danijel's idea allowed us to do is to translate this idea of closure to a live performance medium. We also translated into our vocabulary the tension between words and images that lies at the heart of comics, only in our case it was with music. The music informed the story and the story informed the music and both inform the audience's interpretation of what's going on.

Puddle of Questions #4:

So you have all this experience being an awesome director man, and yet, you do this writing thing, too. Why write, too? Does writing inform your directing, vice versa?

I started as a writer with blogging. I was one of the first theater bloggers in New York, actually. And my writing has always influenced my directing and vice versa. Actually, the most influential single thing on my directing has nothing to do with theater, it's an interview Laura Miller did with David Foster Wallace in Salon.com around when Infinite Jest came out. That interview and the aesthetic rallying cry that Wallace shouts, one in which we take the real life human concerns and beating heart of mainstream work and marry it to the rigor and sense of play of experimentalism is a cry that both Darcy and I heard. I'm pretty sure that when we first started becoming friends, we talked about that interview all the time as we felt it defined a certain part of both of our artistic missions.

Now, I feel like my writing helps my directing and vice versa because honestly, at heart I am a narrativist. Storytelling in its various forms is what interests me as an artist (although as an audience member and reader, I can derive great pleasure out of non-narrative work and in general dislike narrative dance). I now feel like the training in writing I've been getting at the U helps me understand story and story telling better, which helps me tell stories better in both modes. Many of the issues facing writing of the various genres have their analogues within theater. Like at what point does formal experimentalism just become playing to a new, smaller coterie audience? How much do you care about the audience/reader's perception of your work? How do the questions of narrative, formal difficulty, theme etc. change when you're doing a live performance piece, when the piece can't be "re-read" by the audience, when you've got one shot? How do the different structural choices available to you effect meaning?

To give one example: During Brooklyn Babylon, one of my chief concerns was teaching the audience how to watch the piece at the very beginning. So there's this prologue that's just instrumental, and we wanted to stage it in such a way that it layers the different tasks of viewership and brings the audience into it. So the musicians came from all over the place-- including down the aisles of the house-- and once they were all in place about halfway through the song, Danijel started the live painting. So now the audience knows "okay, there's music and there's painting, gotta focus on both of those." During all of this as well, theatrical lighting is starting to be introduced, so they know there's going to be theatrical lighting. Then towards the end of the song, Darcy entered to take his place as the conductor. So now its "okay, there's music, there's this conductor, there's painting." Finally, at the last second, the screen for the movie descended and the stop motion animated film began, but not until the audience had already gotten accustomed to focusing on the music and all the other stuff going on around them. I think this idea very much comes from thinking about what the first chapter of a book has to do. Or the first paragraph of an essay. Or the first handful of lines of a poem (assuming the poem is longer than a handful of lines). We were working to establish the theatrical version of the contract with the reader, in other words. I don't actually think the audience is sitting there saying to themselves "ah, I get it now!" the hope is that it works on a more subliminal level than that.

Outfoxed: An Interview with alumni Lauren Fox

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Lauren Fox, who graduated from the MFA program at the University of Minnesota in 1998, was kind enough to talk to me about her new book, Friends Like Us (Knopf, 2012). We talked about how Donkey Kong, how humor and pain get entangled, and the MFA program's influence on penmanship. Lauren Fox is also the author of Still Life with Husband (Knopf, 2007), and her writing has appeared in Seventeen, Marie Claire, and The New York Times. She lives in Milwaukee (in the oh, oh so grand state of Wisconsin) with her family.

1. Why use the Midwest as a setting? (Milwaukee! I'm thinking about Still Life with Husband.) What does that kind of setting bring to a story?

I grew up in Milwaukee, lived in Madison for a while and then spent almost a decade in Minneapolis. Except for a year in DC, I've lived my whole life in the Midwest, so it's what I know. It's home. I know its rhythms and quirks and at least some of its secrets. I'm not a person who can visit a place and then understand it well enough to set a novel there. I don't have that geographic intelligence that some people have. I get lost a lot. So it makes sense for me to set my novels in a place I know pretty well. I also found, after my last book came out, that people who don't live here have lots of preconceptions about the Midwest (There are suburbs in Milwaukee? And Jews? And irony? Yes, eleven, and yes!). I like undercutting those presumptions.

2. Can you talk a little bit about a story/novel begins to sprout for you? Do you start with a character, a sentence, an idea, an image, something else?

I start with a feeling, or sometimes a song. I am also a first-class brooder, and have been ruminating on certain incidents and grudges (you know who you are) for the last thirty years. Things are always percolating, and I'm always taking notes.

3. What is your writing life like? Are there rituals involved? Does it escape quick like spirits out of a cracked urn? Does it slouch like thick honey towards the opening?

My writing life is like a game of Donkey Kong (how dated is that?). I have two fabulous little girls who start talking to me at about 6:30 AM and don't stop until 9:00 PM. (Literally - they'll be talking one second, and asleep the next.) I'm always just trying to find a few minutes here and (oops, sorry, had to tend to a stubbed toe) there to write. (And my older one is in school, and I do have childcare. It's not like I'm writing novels while my kids are naked and foraging for food in the backyard. Not quite.)

4. I like something Lorrie Moore said about humor, that it comes "from the surprise release of some buried tension." I feel like humor runs very close to sadness. I take my pathetic moods so seriously that I can't take them seriously at all. Can you just talk about the role of humor in your work? What purpose does it serve your characters? How does it help us understand/deal with our painful spots?

Novels are about crises, and a crisis without humor is... a therapy session? My characters are flawed people who make some really bad decisions. They tend to make awful messes out of their lives. I think humor pulls them briefly out of their own confusion and regret, at the same time that it underscores it. I definitely come from a great tradition of dark humor, both culturally and within my family. You can't come from a 2,000-year history of people trying to kill you and not find a little giggle here and there. Both of my parents are very funny people, and my brother's sense of humor is so dry that it sometimes takes me months to figure out whether he was joking about something. So I grew up really valuing that, and sort of intuitively looking for the humor in any given situation - almost as a way of describing it. I do tend to think that most things are either horrible or hilarious or both. The things that are both are the most interesting to me.

5. What inspired your book, Friends Like Us, that's about to be released? What is it like to move from writing one novel to another?

Moving from writing one novel to another was complicated by the fact that I was pregnant when I started writing my second novel. My main character was always bloated, tired and irritable. Not my best work. So Friends Like Us is actually my third novel (after I discarded the second one). And writing it was hard. I kept hearing phrases from the reviews of my first book in my head and feeling paralyzed, by both the praise and the criticism. I felt like I couldn't live up to the praise, and I took the criticisms as confirmation of my worst fears. Friends Like Us didn't really pick up speed until I forced myself to tune out all of that noise. After that, writing it felt like a victory. It was inspired by the intensity of that time period - for me and my friends it was our mid- to late-twenties - when some people are striding confidently toward their bright futures, and some of us are stagnating in jobs we hate and lives and relationships we don't have a handle on. (Note my clever switch to first person plural there.) The relationships between and among the three main characters in Friends Like Us are informed by the push and pull of love and friendship and impending adulthood.

5b. How did you carry around the story on a daily basis? (By this I mean, sometimes the poem I'm working on makes me more happy, less happy, etc. It seeps into my behavior.
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I carried the story around next to a grocery list, a permission slip for a field trip to the art museum, a pink mitten, a half-eaten bag of Cheetos, two overdue library books, and a song by Adele. I was very, very happy to add it to that collection.

6. What can a writer get out of an MFA program? How did your writing change during your time here?

I guess I can only tell you what I got out of the MFA program, which was time and support and confidence. I think that you can construct your life in some ways to resemble an MFA program -- you can work part-time, if you're willing to live an ascetic existence and are not encumbered by other financial obligations, and you can immerse yourself in the literary culture of your city or town, and you can be a part of writing group. And I've been doing these things, off and on and with varying success, ever since I graduated college. But an MFA program provides you with a scaffolding for all of that, a structure and a community of writers and a support system that is hard to replicate when you're on your own. How did my writing change during my time at the U? My o's got a little more oval, my l's slimmed down, my w's got a little pointier, and my q's became curlier.

7. What should writers be looking for when trying to find the "right" program?

I don't really know how to answer this one. It depends so much on the writer, what he or she is looking for, what s/he hopes to accomplish. For sure I would advocate finding a place that will offer you full funding. (Ed. I think even just this is advice potential applicants need to hear.) I don't suggest taking out a huge loan to enroll in an MFA program, because it's so hard and painful to balance creativity with money worries. It's something you probably have to look forward to, as a writer, for the rest of your life, so you might as well try to escape it for a few short, crucial years.

8. What made you decide to apply for MFA programs?

I wanted everything I've been talking about -- the time and freedom to write, the structure and support and community to allow me to do so.

J Bradley talks with PANK about writing an epic poem.

5. There were many pop culture references throughout the poem. Did you include those to make the narrative more accessible or are they more an organic part of the poem?

The pop culture references felt incredibly organic as I was writing Esmeralda. If it made the narrative more accessible to the reader, then that's a bonus. Eliot worked in Dante's Purgatory with Prufrock. I worked in Joy Division.

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potential author #3: please lend me your nearest dead german poet mask.

(thanks mike)

'07 MFA Alum is New Publicity Director at McSweeney's

2007 MFA Program alumna Alyson Sinclair has been named the new Publicity Director of McSweeney's, the behemoth online literary journal and publishing house founded by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers, http://www.mcsweeneys.net/tendency

Alyson is a poet who worked as the MFA program Assistant on Edelstein-Keller Writer Series publicity and events. After graduation, she went to work in FSG's publicity department, which proved a launching pad to publicity position at venerable City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Alyson was also a Graywolf intern while in the program. The MFA program strives to provide opportunities in publishing, events work, publicity and arts administration to our students. Alyson is just one of many talented writers who have found opportunities in the literary world after graduation.

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potential author photo #2: i have something to learn about smiling from the four weathermen of the apocalypse.

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The Center for Visionary Poetics (Sarah Fox, John Fox) held a fantastic reading, which was deemed (it gives me great pleasure to type this) Grand Electric Skull, at Spot Art in NE Minneapolis on Friday evening. Several of our MFAs participated/coordinated/did impressive things with their voices. Readers included: James Shea (who came all the way from Nebraska), Nick Demske (WISCO!), Johannes Goransson (Indiana, Action Books), Lightsey Darst (who used many of our MFA candidates to do a really awesome choral performance), and Elisabeth Workman (a first year MFA poetry lady).

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