Last week MPW trekked through snow and ice for 2013 AWP Boston in Back Bay. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference can be a daunting experience with hundreds of panels on every conceivable topic and with over 10,000 attendees from across the country. Fortunately, the MPW contingent braved these wee temperatures and massive hoards with wide-eyed grace and good humor.
For one, Dinah Lenney (right) led a passionate panel on “Why Genre Matters” with panelists Sven Birkerts, Judith Kitchen, David Biespiel, and Scott Nadelson. Do labels like nonfiction and fiction help or inhibit the writer? The arguments for genre’s persuasions were equally as brilliant as those for its perils. While some in the audience clearly had a horse in the race (at one point an “Amen” was uttered), everyone agreed that it was the vital and intelligent discussion about why genre matters that truly mattered.
We asked MPW students to describe their experience at AWP Boston. Here’s what they wrote:
All I have to say about the AWP experience is: Everybody in the program you HAVE TO go. Find a way. Whatever you want to do with your writing, there are lectures,workshops, and presentations on it, and the discussions, hanging out, and crazy fun with your classmates is the best EVER!\
Trisha Chambers (right)
Had an amazing time with MPW classmates @ AWP! Here are my favorite quotes. Richard Russo: “Writing is an exercise in empathy. To write is to become more generous.” Benjamin Percy on writing about werewolves and non-werewolves: “All my characters are hairy on the inside.” Cheryl Strayed: “Your book has a birthday. You just don’t know what it is yet.”
I received a delightful snow confetti welcome the moment I strolled out of the Logan airport. I was transported from familiar LA to refreshing Boston, eagerly taking in jolts of inspiration from writers and muses, and basking in the soothing company of fellow MPWers. My most memorable quote and reminder on why we write came from Richard Russo: “Writing is an exercise in empathy. To write is to become more generous. To be my best self is to write.” Thank you MPW and AWP for this invaluable opportunity!
AWP is the most useful, enjoyable, and grounding experience I’ve had this year. My favorite panel was “How to get your first university teaching job,” and it was great hearing Don DeLillo speak.
Kelsey Nolan (center)
Knowing that there were over six hundred booths at the AWP book fair was, quite honestly intimidating. How could I ever know what to go see, or who to talk to? Walking in was, all at once, overwhelming and compelling. The buzz made me feel welcome–like I was supposed to be there. I wanted to meet everyone there, submit to every literary journal, and buy every book. I could have spent an entire day in there and still not exhausted it. The whole conference felt that way, really, it was incredible.
Highlights were meeting one of the writers we published in SCR (Erika Wurth). She presented on a panel on Native American writing and came by our booth. Thrilled she sent us her work. Dinner with the MPW crew. Hearing about Connu (my start up) second hand. Figuring out the framing/ending of my novel thanks to Don DeLillo’s panel. Watching Matt in action 87 percent of the time. Connecting with the friends from Skidmore and seeing progress they’ve made–one lit journal, Unstuck, in its second year, a novel done, a few stories published, and a new women’s lit journal started. They are incredible. Ron Carlson’s flash lit panel. Seeing Anne Carson.
AWP provided all the twist and turns of a good novel. I met quite a few characters, some wacky, some endearing, and most memorable. I learned things about my life in the broader context of our world, about my place in the greater literary community. Through the countless panels, I gleaned insights into writing and the craft. Of course, there were moments of daunting plot twists (running out of journals too soon), intimidating landscape (the thousand member book fair), and unwitting heroism (free cupcakes from Howard). Ultimately, this experience sharpened me as a writer, thinker, and, most directly, as a citizen of the wider literary community.
I’m hooked on Downton Abbey, that wonderful British soap with sharp production values and the catchy sense and sensibility of Austen mixed in with the storytelling panorama of James Cameron. Perhaps that is too literal since the Titanic’s sinking in 1912 is what starts off the show, and Downton creator Julian Fellowes is debuting his own Titanic miniseries in April 2012. But Downton’s affinity with Cameron’s retelling goes far deeper than the shared reference to a well-known historical tragedy.
Whether or not you like Cameron’s Titanic, he does manage to capture a bit of that zeitgeist told through a modern point of view. For example, Leonardo di Caprio’s Jack is absolutely heroic as he cuts through the priggishness of society and exists romantically as a well-traveled self-taught artist, a far more lucrative and respectable prospect today than a hundred years ago. While the wealthy guard their Monet and Degas paintings, only Jack manages to really appreciate what is special about them. In other words, he is a character from our time trapped among well-heeled moneyed barbarians. Poetic ironic justice is had because we all know that history will eventually catch up and take sides with our hero’s ideals.
Similarly in Downton, we have characters who struggle against the decline of the British aristocracy and others who embrace it. Such mundane aspects of modern life as applying for a non-servile job, answering a phone, driving a car, or even dressing oneself are treated as uncommon occurrences in the context of a rather rigid class system. And while most of the characters struggle against the decline of British aristocracy, a few characters embrace it and share our modern sensibilities. They are for worker’s rights, women’s rights, and also know somehow that applying for socially-mobile jobs, answering phones, driving cars, and dressing oneself will be the norms of a distant future. In a certain sense, the writers of the show mean to tell us that we ought to identify with these modern characters, because they have chosen the correct version of the future.
Shows like Downton Abbey and films like Titanic flatter us with the idea that we, the audience, live in a blessed world that has graciously overcome all the class struggles of the past. We can be who we want to be, and our rights extend equally to all members of society. In recent years, these backward-looking shows have gained steamed, and their poster boy, Mad Men, shows us an anti-Semitic, sexist world of well-dressed white men working in corporate advertising right as the 1960s counterculture will overturn all of their assumptions. Even last year’s breakout blockbuster, The Help, was a backward-looking film showing a racist, segregated world of well-dressed white women around the time when the Civil Rights’ Movement will overturn all of their assumptions. In all of these cases, we are presumed to be on the right side of history, and perhaps are supposed to be relieved that the prejudices of the past were indeed fought and defeated.
What makes the backward-looking show particularly popular today is that we have become an age obsessed with irony. Even a modern-day show like The Office is populated with characters who only thinly veil their prejudices. On that show, a comment from the boss meant to demonstrate racial sensitivity comes off as racist and ignorant. What gives the show its humor are the reaction shots of horrified people who look into the camera to share their disgust and shock with the camera and, by extension, us. We are told that being a sexist, racist simpleton is funny, because we all know that sexism and racism has been vanquished. This has led to “hipster racism,” the phenomenon where good-intentioned and avowedly non-racist individuals attempt to show off how edgy (read “ironic”) and hip they are by repeating the horrifying epithets and stereotypes of the past.
At this year’s AWP Conference, I attended a panel called “Writing about Race in the Age of Obama.” The panelists consisted of two Asian Americans and two African Americans (notably, one also identified as Native American). While the Q&A session tried courageously to navigate the tricky world of writing about race, the discussion suddenly turned to the subject of an anonymous white woman who had walked out during one of the talks. The African-American speaker noted that she may have left due to being uncomfortable about race, but that it may also have been to go to the bathroom. No one knew. But in the Q&A, another white woman revealed that she forced herself to stay at the panel simply to avoid being viewed as being insensitive to racial matters though she did have to use the bathroom. From then on, it was a back and forth negotiation with tension always on the verge of escalating. Was the speaker attacking the woman who left? Was it an innocent observation? Was it simply an error to even have mentioned it in the first place?
What I came away with was the realization that it wasn’t that race bothered people; it was that anger about race bothered them. People don’t mind a calm discussion where they get to be equally on the “correct” side, but as soon as it gets accusatory and becomes a shouting match, people lose their rational thoughts about race and let loose ideas and comments which are ugly, even though the spark may have been something as innocuous as a white woman leaving a room for an unknown reason.
Recently, I found myself engaged in a debate about Ken Narasaki, a veteran Japanese-American actor and writer, choosing to walk out of a show based upon racist epithets against Asians in the show. Narasaki said that while censorship wasn’t the answer, he felt the carelessness of the epithet used was a cause for concern in driving him and possibly others away from theatre, and he ended by saying he’d most likely never return to that theatre. For some of us, this was a calm and reasoned argument and a source of pride that an Asian American had the courage to stand up for his convictions. For others, his statement was an attack on the theatre itself, a censorship screed, and above all a false accusation of racism. One of the counter-arguments made included reference to the play, Clybourne Park, which won the Pulitzer and deals with the difficulty of true racial sensitivity. The back and forth was flippant, ugly, and finally maddening, an endlessly vicious cycle of hipster racism and outrage.
Perhaps this virulence was best described by Bruce Norris, writer of Clybourne Park, who said in the a TCG-published interview, “We white people (because we are the oppressors) sit around going, ‘Is it time now? Has enough time elapsed? Can we now say ‘nigger’?’ But of course that never happens, so white people feel resentful because we realize the past is going to hang around our necks like millstones forever.”
As much as I like to believe we live in the world where all the evils of the past are now easily blown away like so much dust, instead I now see that these backward-looking shows, though designed to make us feel complacent, should really serve to remind us that we need to remain vigilant about what exactly we fought in the past and how to continue to live up to our ideals today. While we might be tempted to stand in place and to whack-a-mole the straw men, we might benefit more from thinking about how long the road still remains in reconciling our past selves with the ones we hope to become.
The Hollywood Reporter just announced that Rob Marshall was officially on board to direct the screen adaptation of INTO THE WOODS, the Stephen Sondheim masterwork. This is great news for people who love musicals, but also a reminder also that musicals aren’t the cultural touchstones they once were. In fact, the marketing of these movies often obfuscates just how musical-y they are lest it scare off an uninitiated audience. By the same token, an INTO THE WOODS musical is likely to be completely rewritten with special effects and unnecessary action sequences in the hopes of attracting the all-important demo of teenage boys. I hope Marshall eschews studio logic and makes the movie it was meant to be, but history has led us to expect less from these movies.
Broadway’s decline as a pop cultural artform has been well noted. PBS documentaries and history books have lionized the last gasp of Broadway’s relevance. It was Louis Armstrong’s 1964 cover of “Hello Dolly,” the last time Broadway topped the Billboard charts. The moment has become couched as pivotally as Bob Dylan going electric or The Beatles coming to Ed Sullivan, but in truth, it sounds much more like a whimper.
Between the 1930s and 70s, INTO THE WOODS would have been made into a movie musical within a decade. Today, we are over 20 years from its initial production without an INTO THE WOODS movie, and that speaks volumes. Sondheim lets us know in his latest book, Look, I Made a Hat, that despite having had two high-profile Hollywood readings with big stars in the major roles (Cher, Meg Ryan, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, etc.), the project had no green light.
And I wouldn’t blame anyone in Hollywood. INTO THE WOODS is a complex, postmodern, feel-good-then-feel-bad musical. Its fairy tale fantasy setting screams big budget with no guarantee of box office return. There are few seriously hummable tunes although Sondheim’s score is among his best. On top of that, it didn’t even win the Tony for Best Musical. It lost to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s behemoth operetta THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, whose film version itself only came out in 2004 to a lukewarm reception unbefitting its pedigree.
INTO THE WOODS isn’t alone either. SWEENEY TODD took even longer to reach the screen. RENT arrived long after the prime of its topical subject matter. 1960’s THE FANTASTICKS had a movie that was dumped by MGM in 2000, never to be nearly as beloved as its longest running incarnation off-Broadway. NINE won Best Musical in 1982 only to underwhelm on screen in Rob Marshall’s 2009 version. LES MIZ will be coming soon to the movies this December after opening on the West End in 1985. With long stage-to-screen lag times, any enthusiasm these movies might have had during the buzz of their original Broadway runs will have substantially dissipated. At this rate, WICKED won’t be made until Kristin Chenoweth is fit only to play the older Madame Morrible.
Let’s face it. The movie musical as it was has become a dinosaur. Occasionally we still get hits at the box office (for example, CHICAGO and HAIRSPRAY), but only after being tweaked, coddled, and movie-fied. Whereas the old movie musicals like WEST SIDE STORY or THE SOUND OF MUSIC or MY FAIR LADY or OLIVER! (all Best Picture winners by the way) could just have characters break out into song, our new movie musicals require justification. Singing in a story no longer is a foregone conclusion, but one that has to be sold to the audience each and every time. CHICAGO had the conceit (stolen from CABARET by the way) of showing all the musical numbers as taking place in a dream-like cabaret world of the main character’s mind. Some musicals figure an audience will buy such sung exuberance if it stars celebrities and is scored by well-known pop tunes (MAMMA MIA! and the upcoming ROCK OF AGES). DREAMGIRLS needed to convince us of the singing by telling us we are really just watching musicians rehearse. Curiously enough, when the singing in DREAMGIRLS eventually takes the place of the dialogue, it feels jarring and anachronistic. With modern eyes and ears, our desire for realism and cynicism pervade new movie musicals.
Such things were unthinkable in the golden years. The purpose of the movie musical was to bring Broadway to Main Street. Hence, WEST SIDE STORY was not only co-directed by its original director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, but it was designed to capture and share the sensibility of the original show. In other words, these musicals looked stagey on purpose to remind viewers they were watching theatre. This can look strange and unfilmic, and many of them have not aged well despite the source material’s longevity. It’s no wonder then that the best movie musical of all time, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, was conceived as a film first.
However, there is a genre of movie musical that didn’t exist in the heyday of the movie musical, one that could possibly redeem the whole enterprise. That genre is the musical concert film. Rather than giving the show a makeover, a documentarian simply captures the excitement of a live Broadway performance with few compromises. Adding in advancements in camera technique, these films can often feel more dynamic and in-the-moment than their narrative film counterparts.
While Rob Marshall’s hiring is good news, for many the idea of an INTO THE WOODS movie seems redundant since its concert film starring Bernadette Peters is already definitive. Similarly, on DVD, you can see Bernadette and Mandy Patinkin in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and Angela Lansbury in SWEENEY TODD, all in their original glories. Experiencing closing night of RENT is a bittersweet sight to behold, and the brilliant but seldom seen rock musical PASSING STRANGE will live on forever as a Spike Lee joint. While the chance of one of these becoming a blockbuster or Oscar-winner is slim to none, they do offer musical lovers what they long for within Netflix’s long tail: to see these stories told as if they mattered.