25 March 2012

Cris Alexander

Cris Alexander as Chip in On the Town.
Frank Sinatra played the part in the movie.

One of the nicest things about my friend Amanda Green, the kick-ass songwriter of such shows as High Fidelity, Bring It On, and the new Hands on a Hard Body, is that she introduced me to her parents, Phyllis Newman, the actress and force for good in the world, and Adolph Green. With his writing partner, Betty Comden, Adolph devised some of the most exuberant musicals ever known, and long before I came here, a couple of these helped to shape my ideas about New York City and what my life might become. Particularly the “Broadway Melody” ballet from Singin’ in the Rain and the entirety, start to finish, of On the Town are responsible for my sense of the energy of the city, that feeling that I have, on good days, that the sidewalks compel me to dance, and possibility beckons from every corner.

Meeting Phyllis and Adolph altered my perspective, because suddenly, it wasn’t enough any more to strive to be the sort of person whom Gene Kelly might play in a movie. No, from that moment on, I wanted to be Adolph Green.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green

I still do. A paragon of easy sophistication, an accomplished, even magical writer, a sly charmer, and — not least — a man whose record collection filled an entire room of the Greens’ apartment, with shelves that lined every wall from floor to ceiling. When you’re Leonard Bernstein’s former roommate and sometime collaborator, as Adolph was, it’s only natural that you learn a few things about music — but clearly Adolph was prodigious in his own right.

Nobody who comes to New York does so without expectations, and like mine, our expectations of the city evolve over time. That’s true as well for the character Gene Kelly plays in the “Broadway Melody” ballet, and it was probably true for another immigrant from the American Heartland, Cris Alexander, an actor and photographer who passed away this month at the age of 92.

Photograph of a book
with a cover photograph by Cris Alexander.

Alexander came to New York from Oklahoma; his first job on Broadway was as one of three sailors on leave in a little show called On the Town. He played Chip, the sailor of the three with the most fixed and precise expectations of New York City — all of which are derived from an out-of-date guidebook and easily dispatched by the brash taxi driver who advises him to forget sightseeing and “Come Up to My Place.”

Among Alexander’s co-stars were Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who, not content with writing the show, had created roles for themselves to play, as well, and that sort of chutzpah is very much a part of the mystique of the city for me. You get together with a few talented friends (such as the show’s composer, the aforementioned roommate Mr. Bernstein), you have a great time, and somehow the result is a terrific show.

Comden and Green had done something similar already with their nightclub act, called the Revuers, which also embraced Judy Holliday; later in their careers, Comden and Green recorded several Revuers numbers, which remain as fresh and funny today as when they wrote them.

Jeri Archer as Belle Poitrine, the “author” of Little Me.

The other credit for which Cris Alexander is best known is Little Me, a spoof of Hollywood autobiographies by Patrick Dennis, for which Alexander — a successful professional photographer — provided the pictures, combining stock images with original, artfully staged creations. What we see is a bunch of friends putting on silly costumes and horsing around. But considering who the friends were, we’re also seeing something quite special.

Among the friends, for example, are Dennis himself; his Auntie Mame of stage and screen, Rosalind Russell (also star of Bernstein and Comden and Green’s Wonderful Town, which co-starred Cris Alexander); Alice Pearce, the original Lucy Shmeeler of On the Town on stage and screen (as well as the original Gladys Kravitz); and Shaun O’Brien, a dancer with New York City Ballet.

Nice friends: Rosalind Russell’s cameo appearance in Little Me.

Most of these folks wound up creating more lasting and significant art in other places and other ways. Little Me itself went on to be a Broadway musical, with a book by Neil Simon, though not a terribly successful one. But what fun these people had! You look at the pictures and envy them — and the New York they used to call their home.

There are days when I don’t feel like Gene Kelly, when I feel as if the ongoing party that is New York City came to an end just as I arrived here. Comden and Green used to perform at parties, and A Party was the name they gave to their duo act when they took it to Broadway in the 1970s. But all I’ve got is the cast album.

It’s harder these days to put on any kind of a show, harder just to get a group of friends together — no matter how talented they may be. (Amanda Green, for example, is constantly on the go. Just try to keep up with her.) In a city that is more and more focused on money and less on art, certain kinds of possibility are dwindling, or gone already.

What a party!
Alexander used to host and photograph dress-up parties, which in turn inspired Patrick Dennis to write Little Me and a second book, a spoof of White House memoirs, First Lady: My Thirty Days Upstairs at the White House, by Martha Dinwiddie Butterfield.
(My own copy of that book has gone missing.)

And yet other possibilities are just beginning. Shaun O’Brien and Cris Alexander were partners for more than six decades, and last year, they married in New York State. They died just two weeks apart, in Saratoga Springs, City Ballet’s second home, where they made their retirement. O’Brien went first; a friend told the New York Times that Alexander had died of a broken heart.

Maybe they didn’t need any official imprimatur to certify their relationship, but it was only last year that they could marry legally — and they did. What a happy final chapter to what was, as Alexander put it, “a lovely life.”

Shaun O’Brien

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22 March 2012

Baitz’s ‘Other Desert Cities’

Welcome to Palm Springs:
Judith Light, Elizabeth Marvel, Justin Kirk, Stacy Keach,
and Lauren Klein.

Illustration by WVM

The people in Jon Robin Baitz’s plays are different from you and me: they have more money. And partly for that reason, these characters cope with the sorts of troubles that you and I aren’t likely to face. The same is true of Hamlet, of course, to which the characters in Baitz’s new-ish play, Other Desert Cities allude at one point, and in his own way, Baitz upholds the Aristotelian virtues.

And yet, if you come away from Other Desert Cities with any sort of catharsis, it will be despite the fancy trappings with which Baitz has burdened his story, despite the wealth and privilege of his characters, and most certainly despite the utterly incoherent political analysis that he forces upon us. However, if you leave out the politics, you’re left with a very old-fashioned play. Baitz boxes himself in: he has no choice but to aim for the appearance of higher purpose.

It’s in his very conventionality, and where Baitz is least ambitious, that he succeeds best here: Other Desert Cities is about secret-keeping and truth-telling in families, and in his exceptional Wyeth family, I could see some ordinary Madisons, much as the playwright must have intended.

With Hollywood careers (Lyman was an actor, Polly a screenwriter) and an ambassadorship (rather like John Gavin’s posting to Mexico) behind them, the Wyeths reside in tasteful comfort in Palm Springs, which, the playbill notes helpfully, is in California. Even the Christmas tree is color-coordinated to match the furniture. The Wyeths are major boosters of the Republican Party, avidly patterning themselves after their friends “Ronny and Nancy,” but lately most of their attention has been focused on caring for their depressive daughter, Brooke, and for Polly’s alcoholic sister (and former writing partner), Silda.

None of the family can make it through the day without a little chemical boost of some sort, as it happens. Both Lyman and Polly knock back the high balls and sneak cigarettes, and their son Trip has brought a bag of marijuana home for Christmas. But there’s no buffer and no place to hide when Brooke announces that she’s written a book about the central crisis in her family’s lives. (An excerpt is scheduled to appear in The New Yorker within weeks, she tells her parents — again, not a problem that you and I are likely to share.)

Confronted with the exposure of their most painful secrets, Lyman blusters and roars and pleads, while Polly turns almost inhumanly cold. She’s always taken her cues from Nancy Reagan, she explains, believing that the public image must be carefully controlled.

Stacy Keach as Lyman Wyeth:
Is there a pun here? Lie-man?

But what is Baitz really trying to say about Republicans? The Kennedy White House was at least as image-conscious as the Reagans. And perhaps I’m on the wrong side of the aisle to see properly, but I don’t recall when the modern Conservative Movement sacrificed and went out of its way to care for the neediest, the way Lyman and Polly thanklessly bend over backward for Brooke and Silda. Do Republicans have secrets? Who doesn’t? It’s the universality of family secret-keeping that makes this play worthwhile.

Even Baitz’s time frame is off: setting the play in 2004 places us at the height of “homeland security” concerns and liberal impotence, but it also means that the characters, especially the Wyeth children, simply aren’t old enough for that long-ago secret, a sort of Vietnam War protest gone terribly wrong. Baitz surely felt the need to make his play more important by raising political themes, but he’s no Tony Kushner. His thinking is muddled and his expression worse. None of it makes sense, and you walk out of the theater angry at such clumsy attempts at manipulation.

Somehow the personal story is effective, though, and it’s honey for actors. Joe Mantello’s production, under the aegis of Lincoln Center Theater, has been running for a while, and at the performance I attended this week, Stockard Channing’s understudy, Lauren Klein, took the role of Polly. Frankly, I’m delighted to discover Klein, who brilliantly manages her character’s Texas accent and acerbic wit. Petite and poised, she makes an excellent foil for Stacy Keach’s titanic Lyman, a great bear both in his outsized affections and in his anger. (In one outburst at the Wednesday matinée, Keach actually broke a lamp onstage — and no, that wasn’t part of the script. No wonder this actor loves theater!) Polly is the ice queen of the desert sands, but I honestly can’t imagine how Channing — with her patented WASPy, East Coast sophistication — could pull off this character nearly so well as Klein does.

Judith Light:
Golly, she’s thin!

As Silda, Judith Light gets most of the laughs, and there’s something self-consciously stagy about the character: Silda knows she’s delivering lines. It’s when Light is listening to the other actors that you get a sense of the real Silda. She really is marvelous, and it’s a treat to see her now that Ugly Betty has given me a clearer idea of her talent. Though Trip has little to do but try to stay out of the others’ way, Justin Kirk was pleasing and believable as always; he’s grown comfortably into his beauty and his stoner drawl. (Seriously, how many actors his age have such distinctive speaking patterns?)

For this audience, Elizabeth Marvel was the weak link. Though it’s to be remembered that she’s got the rangiest, most difficult role in a remarkably talky play, I seldom felt Marvel was deeply connected to the character’s emotions. When Brooke wonders aloud why she expected her parents to cheer her decision to air their dirty laundry in The New Yorker, I didn’t get the feeling that Marvel knew the answer. It’s the hook on which Baitz hangs his play, which is not to say that he knows the answer, either. But regardless of the playwright’s inexplicable contrivances, it’s the actor’s job to make choices. Too often, Marvel simply flailed.

Justin Kirk as Trip

Other Desert Cities has been playing a while, as I say, and the production enjoys an excellent reputation, both by word of mouth and in the press, and for the most part deservedly so. At Wednesday’s matinée, I was surrounded by literal busloads of theater parties — who kindly stopped texting during the play when I asked them. (We live in an age of miracles.)

Baitz is the rare playwright of my generation to know such success, and yet his work, like Aaron Sorkin’s, makes me wonder whether high gloss doesn’t cover over a limited imagination and narrow artistic ambition. If I ever set out to write a play, I may aim a little lower as a result.

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18 March 2012

Songs of Innocence

I spend a great deal of my time listening to music and trying to understand how it does what it does — that voodoo that it do so well, if you will. This process of exploration and meditation began early, pretty much from the cradle, and so the nearly simultaneous deaths recently of songwriter Robert B. Sherman (5 March) and singer Davy Jones (29 February) strike me as especially worthy of comment. In both cases, because I heard them when I was so young, these men helped to define song for me.

In the case of Jones, he also helped to define rock’n’roll, through his work with the “pre-fab four,” the Monkees. I’d had virtually no exposure to rock when the band’s television show first aired, in 1966, and that show’s principal influence, Richard Lester’s movies with the Beatles, remained unknown to me until I was in college. What the Monkees did was rock only in the most generous interpretation, having mainly to do with instrumentation. If it’s got a drum set and an electric guitar, it must be rock’n’roll. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The Monkees in their hey-hey day:
Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz

Most of the songs for which they’re best known were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, the team also responsible for “I’m Gonna Blow You a Kiss in the Wind,” Serena’s serenade in a seminal episode of Bewitched, which incited me to something like hysteria when I first saw it. But this wasn’t the response of a rock fan, it was the response of a diva-worshipper. (Imagine! Elizabeth Montgomery — one of my first crushes — singing!)

When Serena Met (and Kidnapped) Boyce & Hart.
Photo from the indispensable Harpies Bizarre,
your one-stop Bewitched website.

Real rock is rebellious, subversive: the Monkees, and most especially Davy Jones, were merely cheeky. The band tried to take their music closer to the edge, famously inviting no less an avant-gardist than Frank Zappa to appear on their show and increasingly attempting to exert their own tastes in the selection of their repertoire. It turned out that this wasn’t exactly what the public wanted, and we all moved on, mostly, except for the occasional burst of nostalgia. Let’s face it: “I’m a Believer” is a great song, and you don’t ever want to forget it.*

What would a real rocker have done with Marcia Brady?
Still, these two paved the way for Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) and Joey Ramone in Rock’n’Roll High School.

Soon I would discover rock that was more serious and far more subversive; thanks to a school friend, the late Keith Kaski, I even discovered punk rock while it was still more or less current. For a long time, the most significant thing for this audience about Davy Jones was that his success with the Monkees led directly to the invention of Ensign Pavel Chekov and the casting of Walter Koenig on Star Trek.

Pleasant Walley vass a Russian inwention.
From one of Chekov’s first episodes, when Koenig wore a Davy Jones wig because his own hair had yet to grow out.

If as a child I had no exposure to rock, the responsibility lies largely with my parents, particularly with my mother, who was and is a devotee of the classic Broadway musicals, especially those of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe. Thanks to My Fair Lady, Mom was a Julie Andrews fan even before I was born, and it was a matter of course that both she and I would love Mary Poppins, in which the Sherman Brothers’ songs play such an important role.

To this day, I can remember every lyric, and sing passably approximate pitches, to every song from Mary Poppins. Here, too, quite a lot went over my head, though it’s noteworthy that so many of the songs continue to give me pleasure as an adult because they have grown along with me: “Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!” makes sense to me now, though it surely didn’t then, and only a couple of years ago did I understand the veiled reference to date rape in “Jolly Holiday.”

“You’d never think of pressing your advantage…”

Of course, when I first heard the Mary Poppins score, I was so naïf, I actually believed there was a place on earth where people talked with an accent like Dick Van Dyke’s “Cockney.”** My ideas about London — about love — about music — were still very much unshaped.

The Sherman Brothers’ songs were very much a part of my world, a “Small World, after all.” As that song proves, the brothers knew how to write tunes that are unforgettable, whether you want them to be or not. Catchy melodies and a playful spirit make an unbeatable combination for the Winnie-the-Pooh songs, but because the Shermans didn’t talk down to their young listeners, there’s often a great deal going on at once.

The wonderful thing about Tiggers
is Tiggers have wonderful songs.

Consider the Pooh theme song, which begins with a lilting, wistful prelude about “Christopher’s childhood days,” automatically guaranteeing that a specific nostalgia will be passed along to us, too (and it’s worked out exactly that way for this listener), before launching into a jaunty march that somehow manages to capture the rhythm at which you think a stuffed bear would probably walk.

At their best, the Shermans’ songs manage to run deeper still, most notably perhaps in “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. As the New York Times obituary noted, Robert B. Sherman was among the first U.S. soldiers to enter the Dachau concentration camp, an experience that marked him, and his was the darker personality of the two brothers. It’s for others to say whether the tension between Robert’s pessimism and Richard’s optimism was like that between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and one source of the strength of their songs.

Walt Disney with the Sherman Brothers.

But as I listen in hindsight, as it were, I marvel at how much they were able to convey, without forcing me to grow up too quickly — something the Monkees did to a lesser yet similar degree. These were among the building blocks of my appreciation of music, and if I later grew to love opera and punk rock and all the other music I admire, it’s because inspired craftsmen like the Shermans and appealing performers like Jones gave me such a good start.

Finally, in the context of this discussion, it must be underlined that Robert B. Sherman was not Bobby Sherman, nor even any relation. Thank you.

*NOTE: “I’m a Believer” is an exceptional Monkees song not only in its enduring excellence but also in that it was written by Neil Diamond, rather than by Boyce and Hart. Tom Stoppard memorably paid tribute to it in his play, The Real Thing, which means there’s a very good chance that Jeremy Irons still remembers all the words to the song.

**I’ve always wondered why Julie Andrews — Eliza Doolittle, for mercy’s sake — didn’t take Dick Van Dyke in hand and teach him ’ow to talk proper.

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The Enchantments of E. Nesbit

Thoroughly Modern Edith Nesbit:
Her short hairstyle was much remarked-upon in her day.

There is this to be said about owning books, and keeping them all about you: when you wake in the middle of the night, you may pull down to read something you’ve meant to read for a long time, owned but never gotten around to, held on to for the promise it holds. I first heard of the children’s fantasy novels by E. Nesbit in another set of children’s books, those of Edward Eager, who pays tribute to her by name in such (relatively) modern classics as Half-Magic and Magic by the Lake. But somehow, in the years since elementary school, I’d never managed to read anything by Nesbit until now.

The work that came to hand was The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Nesbit’s first book for children, published in 1899. Although it turns out to be quite magical, it’s not a fantasy novel, but grounded in reality that intrigued me and that speaks quite clearly to our own Recession-battered times. The tale takes place during an economic downturn, and its principal characters, the five Bastable children, are determined “to restore the fallen fortunes of our house.”

The Bastables, as seen in a BBC adaptation.
(Which I have not seen.)

Mercifully, the Puffin edition I have owned for at least 20 years contains an introductory essay and a biographical sketch: thus I learned that Edith Nesbit (1858–1924) was the wife of Hubert Bland and one of the founders of the Fabian Society. Suddenly the correct context was established. Naturally the Bastables aren’t upper class! And naturally they seek treasure not in a fairy kingdom but in the everyday Britain around them. The results are completely charming and unlike any other books of the period I know.

We must begin by admitting that the beloved Alice and even Dorothy Gale are rather stiff little Victorians: they have to be, because in Wonderland and Oz they’re surrounded by such fanciful creatures that we as readers require their sobriety as a sort of polestar, to keep us from spinning out of control until we fly altogether out of the book. (Child-characters in other Victorian-era books have no such excuse.) The Bastables, on the other hand, don’t inhabit a fantasy land; while virtuous enough, yes, they’re anything but prigs.

Because their widowed father has no money to send them to school, they’ve got days to fill. Being bright and imaginative, and getting along remarkably well as playmates, this is no great hardship in itself. But because they are the inventions of a Fabian Socialist, they want to do something productive: they want to get money, even if it means earning it. Beyond that, they are allowed quirks and wit that most other late-Victorian authors would seem unwilling to suggest as possibilities. You can almost hear them: “What if some child happened to read this book, and exhibit such behavior? No, wiser to show them only paragons and cherubim as models!”

Spying on the grownups’ conversation:
An illustration from the original (or nearly so) edition.

The Bastables are nice children yet imperfect, like real boys and girls. They’re close-knit but they do vie for dominance; they disagree, and they even bicker a bit — just a bit. They’re rather mean to the boy who lives next-door, and some of their treasure-seeking plans entail robbery and other ungentlemanly vices. Though Nesbit doesn’t rub our noses in squalor, the way Dickens might have done, she certainly never lets us forget the grit and the sheer want that the Bastables confront each day. The family are “shabby genteel,” as my grandmother used to say, but the suggestion is that worse privations may be looming just offstage.

The book is narrated by one of the Bastable children, who insists from the first page that he must remain anonymous until the end of the story — and then a paragraph or so later reveals his identity inadvertently. I’ll keep his secret, just so that you can enjoy it yourself, but in the reading what this means is that certain of his descriptions and his justifications for his character (to whom he doggedly refers in the third person) deliver plenty of ironic humor.

Indeed the conflict between expectations and reality is the core of the book and the source of most of its laugh-out-loud comedy. Again and again, the children’s ideas turn out to be mistaken when tested. Becoming a detective, or getting one’s poems published in a newspaper, or meeting a princess, or rescuing a wealthy man, or starting one’s own business aren’t so easy or rewarding as they are in other authors’ books. When the Bastables decide to publish their own newspaper, the results are in fact hilarious, perhaps one of the greatest examples of sustained comedy in a single chapter of any children’s book from any period I can think of.

Hubert Bland, Nesbit’s husband and father of her children.
With Nesbit, unlike other Victorian authors, you continually get the sense that she actually knew real boys and girls —
and rather liked them.

If you were an imaginative child yourself — and chances are, you were, or you wouldn’t have read this far — you’ll recognize yourself in Nesbit’s pages, and like me, you may see much of the world you inhabit today. I’m struck by the realization that the Bastable boys, including Oswald with his reverence for Kipling, were just the right age to die in the Great War. But I’m not sure anyone ever constructed a greater monument than this book to the promise of their generation.

Shortly after The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Nesbit turned her remarkable sensibilities toward the writing of fantasy, and after polishing off this first book in two sittings, I turned to what is perhaps her most famous novel, Five Children and It. Here, too, we get a realistic setting remote from the privileged realms where other authors’ characters live: these children go on vacation, but not to some palace but to an ordinary house outside London, where there is no seashore and no enchanted forest but an ordinary sand pit to play in. When they do meet a fairy, it’s a remarkably ugly, peevish one, and when it grants their wishes, it does so in ways that are complicating and often vexing, more fun for the reader than for the Five Children.

It’s here that my appreciation for Edward Eager’s work grew: his books truly capture Nesbit’s spirit, transport it to modern-day America, and nurture it with care. I have a few more of Nesbit’s books already close to hand — and in turn she’s made me want to return to Eager’s, which are on my shelf still, too — and I daresay I’ll have more to say on the subject sometime soon.

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17 March 2012

Progress Report 11: L’Homme du Train

Photographs taken with my phone, believe it or not.

I was homeward bound on the subway the other night, after a glorious performance by Janice Hall at the Metropolitan Room, dinner with good friends old and new, and the uncanny experience of watching the composer Jorge Martín fall into a trance state while watching “America” from West Side Story at Musical Mondays at Splash, a bar in Chelsea.

The track is a long one, and I passed the time by reading. As we neared my station, I pocketed the book. “Why’d you do that?” asked the drunken, disheveled old man across from me.

“I’m getting off at the next stop,” I replied.

“I’m writing a book,” the old man went on, and my heart began to sink.

“You live on the streets long enough, you get enough stories for a book,” he went on. “You meet so many people, so many things happen. You just gotta write a book.”


He didn’t ask for money, and at the end of the long evening I didn’t really have much to spare. I wished him luck as I stepped out of the car and hurried back to my apartment.

When did the MTA install mirrors in subway cars, I wondered, and since when are they futurized? Because it seemed as if I’d just seen my own reflection, a few years from now, a few more stops down the subway line of life.

How often do I go around saying, “I’m writing a book”? Is the assertion any more realistic than the old man’s? Especially since I’d put the Madeline Kahn biography on indefinite hold, pending an offer from a publisher that never came.

Why wouldn’t this man possess the gift of prophecy? As he himself said, he’d met so many people, seen so many things. Why wouldn’t he know?

And yet, almost from the instant we met, my fortunes began to change. Perhaps he’s not a prophet but a sort of pascal lamb, who’s taken on the bad luck that used to be or might have been mine. Who knows?

Whatever the case, I have received portents and affirmations; now there is no more doubt. I am indeed writing a book, I am indeed the authorized biographer of Madeline Kahn — and I’ll be posting a major announcement here, very soon. Look for it.


NOTE: The title of this essay is derived from that of Patrice Leconte’s charming film, co-starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday (2002).

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16 March 2012

Why I Am Leaving James Franco

Today is my last day with James Franco. After almost 12 years of following his every move slavishly — first in that James Dean movie, then on reruns of Freaks and Geeks, then in all sorts of movies and, above all, magazine articles and Internet chat rooms — I believe I have lived with him long enough to understand his culture and his identity. And I can honestly say that the environment of James Franco Obsession now is as toxic and destructive — to me, personally — as it could possibly be.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the obsessive entertainment writer (which is to say, me) continue to be sidelined in the way James Franco goes about his business (which is to say, in the manner that best serves his interests). James Franco is one of the world’s most important actor–writer–producer–artist–supermodel-thingamabobs, and he is too integral to my mental health to continue to ignore me.

Has he called me once since gay marriage was legalized in New York State? No, he has not. While it is true that he has never called me a “muppet,” the sad truth is that he has never called me at all. In fact, I have reason to believe that he doesn’t know I exist.

It’s all give, give, give. When is it my turn to take? Does Jibby have any moral compass at all? Surely he understands that I, like hundreds of other people who write about movies for newspapers, magazines, and blogs, have obsessive needs that are every bit as valid as his.

Why, it’s been days — entire days — since Jib-Jib released a new movie, or published a short story, or installed some sort of art project somewhere, or made an ironic public appearance, or did anything worth writing about. Am I supposed to sit around here waiting? How does he expect me to keep this relationship going?

And although it’s hard to believe, it’s true that sometimes the waiting time is even longer before photographs of him begin to speak to me, in that special voice he would reserve for me alone, if indeed he ever spoke to me, or knew who I was.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but character really does count; it was always a vital part of Jib-Jib’s success. It wasn’t just about being famous; this alone will not sustain an artist for so long. He revolved around weird career choices which I could analyze and explicate at length (Tristan + Isolde? Really? Marilyn Monroe drag at the Oscars? Are you serious?), not to mention a dreamy smile I could get lost in. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the cult of personality that made me love this celebrity for many years.

Clearly now I need to turn my attentions elsewhere. But where can I find an intelligent, multi-talented, disarmingly charming actor to obsess over? One who got his start in a sitcom, say, and who attended at least one of my alma maters? One who makes the occasional blockbuster but who reveals his true artistry in quirky, often homo-friendly, small, independent movies? Maybe even one who speaks French?

NOTE TO JIB-JIB: Of course you know I’m just kidding, darling. Call me!

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15 March 2012

‘Rags’ Revisited

“Yankee Boy”: Martha Wasser as Rebecca, Zac Ballard as little David, and Austen Nash Boone as Nathan.
Barbara Siman’s staging for Marymount Manhattan College’s
Theatre Production Workshop.
Photograph by Susan Cook©

My last glimpse of Rags was not closing night of the show’s Broadway run, 23 August 1986, but a few years later, when lyricist Stephen Schwartz directed a smaller-scale production for the Jewish Repertory Theatre (or somesuch name) in a tiny theater in Chelsea.* I am in fact eager to hear people other than Teresa Stratas and Dick Latessa sing the words “Now it belongs to you,” to people other than Josh Blake and Judy Kuhn, and really to mean those words: Rags ought to belong to more performers and more audiences than ever knew the original. But returning to the show a quarter-century later, with so many beloved friends gone now, and to see Rags in a student production at Marymount Manhattan College proved more poignant than I could have imagined.

After all, when Leanne Brunn warbled “Three Sunny Rooms,” it was as much the voice of my beloved Marcia Lewis that I heard as it was Brunn’s, and faces of friends loved and lost that I saw in place of the young actors onstage now. The show meant a lot to me, as I’ve said, and over the years it has taken on additional meanings, resonance far beyond the strains of Charles Strouse’s score. I had to keep reminding myself: the past doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Now it belongs to them.

According to Barbara Siman, the show’s distinguished professional director and choreographer, the performing edition used for this production incorporates changes made by Strouse, and the book’s author, the late Joseph Stein. (Absolutely nothing was made at MMC of the fact that Ms. Siman is also Charles Strouse’s wife, and I confess I didn’t recognize her when we spoke after the performance and probably made a fool of myself.) Remembering that Schwartz tinkered with the book, too, for his production, we can see clearly that it’s been a goal of all three of the creators of Rags to give this show a new life: to correct the persistent problems in its book, perhaps at the same time making it easier to produce, to help it attain and sustain the status it deserves.

After all, Rags represents strong work from all three creators — and in the case of Strouse’s score, it represents some of the most ambitious and thrilling music he ever wrote. Moreover, and again it’s true for all three creators, Rags expressed profound feelings, particularly about the experience of Jewish Americans but also about politics, family, love, class, and success. There’s no reason to leave this piece locked in an archive somewhere — and it would be nice to earn a little royalty income from it, too.

But the changes that Charles and Joe wrought are only partly successful, and in some cases quite puzzling, especially in Act II. While Siman’s production was for the most part sensational — a template of sorts for other theaters with less than Broadway-size budgets — I’m left with the feeling that the best thing that could possibly happen to this show is a revival by an outfit such as “Encores!” here in New York, involving a fresh creative team and employing (as “Encores!” always does) a fresh hand to adapt the book.

Surely the answer to Rags’ problems isn’t to make the show even talkier than it was before — and yet so many songs are cut in Act II! Turning that ravishing, thundering Kaddish chorale into a truncated solo made me wince, though it does speed up the action. But how did Strouse bring himself to sacrifice “Dancing with the Fools”? That’s the eleven-o’clock number for the show’s heroine, Rebecca, and possibly his most serious composition, one of the reasons he wanted to cast an opera singer in the role, to avail himself of the range and scale of a trained voice.

Granted, if you eliminate that song (rather than transposing it down or rearranging it), you do make it easier to cast Rebecca’s part in a theater where a Classical soprano may not be available. We’re trying to guarantee this show’s future, as I say, and sacrifices are necessary. But that one must have been tough, and ultimately I don’t think it helps much.

For long stretches, the show is very much as it opened on Broadway — apart from the overture, and the questionable choice to make the first account of “I Remember Summer Evenings” an accompanied chorus instead of an a cappella solo, Act I would be thoroughly recognizable to the show’s veterans. The character of Ben, the fast-talking boyfriend of the juvenile lead, Bella, has shrunk yet further, to the point where I don’t understand why he’s still in the show: that character’s loss would be a much easier sacrifice, especially if you haven’t already cast Lonny Price (or Ben Garrett, the very appealing fellow who played him at MMC) in the role.

Siman used photo projections to establish place, generally to much greater effect than Beni Montresor’s ugly, combersome set did on Broadway, and her choreography was truly marvelous, far better overall than that in the original production. She was less successful at getting the young actors to pick up the pace (I could have driven a pushcart through some of the lags between cues, which in turn made Act II seem all the talkier) and at discouraging the egregious mugging from one particular ensemble member. But I walked out of the theater thinking, “Yes, this is just about what this show ought to look like.” And I was happy, truly.

As is my habit, I’ll refrain from commenting in much detail about the student actors, though they were a talented lot, with some especially fine singing voices. Casting a very young boy as David was an interesting (and crowd-pleasing) choice, though it did make me wonder whether Nathan was really the father, since he’s said to have left home six years before the play begins.

I wished Rebecca had been given a coat and a babushka or some sort of head kerchief, especially in the early scenes, to give us more of a sense of the character’s emergence, in “Blame It on the Summer Night” for example: as it was, Rebecca stepped off the boat at Ellis Island looking very much as if she’d just stepped into her kitchen for a little light baking. But Martha Wasser gave a thoroughly admirable performance in what is still a demanding role. For her and for Brunn, who out of all the cast had perhaps the most difficult shoes to fill to the satisfaction of this audience, I’m especially confident the future holds much reward.

As for that future, it remains my hope that, the more people hear Rags, the more they’ll take it to heart — as I did, a quarter-century ago, and as I did again last week. There are so many treasures here! They’re really not hard to find, among the show’s shortcomings. Yes, Rags is still a challenge, but now it belongs to you. So pick it up.

“Greenhorns”: Rebecca and David arrive at Ellis Island.
Photo by Susan Cook.©

NOTE: Only a short while before Stephen’s production of Rags, I’d seen cast member Lonny Price’s production of The Rothschilds, working magic in the same space (a full-out pogrom, no less!) and — for this audience, at least — truly signaling that Lonny’s career as a stage director was launched.

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12 March 2012

Janice Hall at the Metropolitan Room

Portrait of a Cabaret Star.
Illustration by WVM©

As spring offers tantalizing signals of nearness, I rise some days prepared to sing “Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Luckily however — for anyone within earshot — I don’t have to sing it, because Janice Hall is doing it for me. It’s the opening number in her new cabaret act, “I’d Rather Be Doing This,” which I caught at its second performance at New York’s Metropolitan Room.

Janice gave us a preview in December at Urban Stages, a theater in midtown, but while Urban Stages’ proportions are certainly intimate, it’s not a cabaret: the new material felt right before, but it feels righter now in the sort of space it was designed to fill. An increasing sense of ease marks Janice’s each foray into this art form — which is not to say that she ever seemed uneasy.

But consider the ingredients of I’d Rather Be Doing This: a collection of some of Janice’s favorite theater songs and pop standards. In her previous show, Grand Illusions, Janice had a theme: the career of Marlene Dietrich, as charted in song.* In this new show, Janice herself is the Dietrich, if you will, the star around whom the show is built.

She brings to the cabaret stage a number of skills that have helped her transition so gracefully into this new repertoire. Among the most important, I realized while I listened to her on March 5, is rhythm — essential because cabaret is so closely linked to jazz. And baby, Janice has got rhythm, all right, delivering Nancy White’s tricky (and very funny) “Bet He Can Tango” and Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” with danceable flair. But she can slow down, too, and her mashup of Baghdad Café’s “Calling You” and Dimitri Tiomkin’s “Wild Is the Wind” proved astonishing, sung in one long outpouring of breath, her emotions seemingly torn in two opposing directions — that turned out to be one and the same.

Among Janice’s other great assets are her wit and the diction with which to express it. Intricate lyrics pose no obstacle, and with an assist from her director, Peter Napolitano, and music director, Matthew Martin Ward, she deploys impeccable comic timing — notably in Napolitano and Ward’s song, the title number, a paean to anything but making love.

Ward’s no slouch when it comes to comic timing, which he demonstrated with a hilariously deadpan running translation of the Italian pop classic, “Mala Femmena,” a furious curse on the eponymous “bad woman” who’s done the singer wrong. Here and in Piaf’s “L’Accordéoniste” (by Michel Emer), Janice made use of her linguistic abilities, though naturally they’re less central to this show than they were to the Dietrich act.

Another mashup really warmed my heart, the combination of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” (from Lady in the Dark) and “Pirate Jenny” (from Threepenny Opera), connecting the yearning that’s in both songs with the festering, lethal resentment that marks most of “Jenny.” Every time Janice sings Weill, I go home fantasizing about the roles that she could play so beautifully, from Anna in Sieben Todsünden to Venus and beyond. With her ability to do justice to both aria and song, she’d be unbeatable in almost anything Weill ever wrote, actually.

It strikes me that, while Janice has played soprano leads in opera — the very definition of stardom — here on the cabaret stage she’s got no character but herself to portray, no personality but her own to charm us. It takes guts to do that, and I’m happy to say that Janice is succeeding magnificently.

The next performance of I’d Rather Be Doing This is April 18, at 9:30 PM at the Metropolitan Room. Be there.

Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd St.
Between 5th and 6th Avenues
New York, NY 10010

*NOTE: As a special treat in the form of an encore on March 6, we got a quick overview of Grand Illusions, for which Janice has been nominated for an Outstanding Vocalist award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs. She couldn’t include all of my favorite moments, but every one she did perform was a honey. Please note, too, that Peter Napolitano has been nominated for a directing award from the same organization.

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11 March 2012

World’s Best Recipe for Topinambours

Topinambours in their raw state.
They look nothing like artichokes, as you can see,
and I don’t taste much of a resemblance, either.

Countless readers — or anyway, one reader — have demanded that I share with them my recipe for topinambours, known in English as Jersualem artichokes or “sunchokes,” a name which is guaranteed to prevent people from eating them. On the other hand, if nobody else eats them, that leaves more for me, doesn’t it? So call ’em what you will, but I’m sticking with the French. It’s a nice word that sounds rather like some sort of toy or clown.

Culled from the roots of a member of the sunflower family, topinambours are among the légumes oubliés, or “forgotten vegetables,” which the French swore off when the Occupation ended. Under the Nazi administration, the Germans got all the good stuff to eat, leaving for the French the sorts of things (rutabaga, winter squash, crosnes, etc.) to which they were indifferent at best, and of which they quickly had their fill. A couple of generations of Frenchmen wouldn’t even touch topinambours, but they’ve been making a comeback in recent years.

Topinambours (above) with yellow turnips, another “forgotten vegetable,” one January morning at Franck’s vegetable stand in the Beynes market.

That said, topinambours are exceptionally hard to find, and you expose yourself to comment from your neighbors when you buy them. I learned this firsthand at the town marketplace in Beynes, where my veg vendor, Franck, made a point of selecting the best and easiest to peel specimens. He wanted to make an example of me, so that perhaps other customers would take the topinambours off his hands, but I’m not sure he ever succeeded.

Topinambours are well worth the effort (and potential embarrassment and ostracism), with a naturally nutty, buttery flavor to reward you in the end. But it’s important at all times to remember the topinambour’s history, because the secret to preparing them properly is pain and suffering.

Recently, I found topinambours at a farmers’ market in Manhattan, and paid roughly four times for them what Franck would have charged. I took them home and prepared them — exactly as I would have done in my charming kitchen in the French countryside. Please note that there are fancier recipes than mine, but believe me, you won’t have the patience to try them.

Remembered vegetables: Another view of Franck’s stand.
This picture was taken in summer, when topinambours aren’t in season.

1. Get a sack full of topinambours from your vegetable vendor. Never mind about the amount: no matter how few you purchase, you will have too many, as you will understand when you start to peel them.

2. Try not to listen to the remarks your neighbors are making behind your back: “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il fout, l’Américain là? C’est quoi, ces petites crottes de chien qu’il achète, bordel? Moi, je ne toucherais jamais un tel truc! Putain!” Return to your charming kitchen in the French countryside.

3. Even in America, topinambours are covered in gritty, gritty, stubborn dirt when you buy them. Don’t bother to wash them yet. What would be the point?

3. Peel each topinambour. If you are in France, it’s probable that you don’t have a vegetable peeler with a pivoting blade: this is an American innovation, apparently, and French people are always amazed by it. (“Qu’est-ce que c’est, ce petit truc? Mais c’est génial! Putain!”) French peelers are immovable objects, as you will discover when you begin to work; in most kitchens, peelers tend to be very dull, as well.

4. The peel of the topinambour is not terribly thick, but it’s difficult to remove because of the knobby shapes of each root. Dirt remains trapped inside the crevices, and little bumps and outcroppings resist the most adroit peeling technique. Be ruthless!

5. While peeling, try not to think about how much money you have spent on parts of the topinambour that you will only throw out.

6. Peeling topinambours is very, very tedious. If you are working at the sink in your charming kitchen in the French countryside, it’s also stoop labor: our sink was made to measure for the previous owner of the house, a spinster schoolteacher who was teeny-tiny. But whatever you do, don’t think about how much your back is starting to hurt.

7. In order to finish sometime before you die of boredom, try to peel faster. Faster!

8. Faster!

9. Cut your finger.

10. Sometimes it’s easier to cut away the larger knobs, because there’s no way you can get a peeler between the parts, and this way you can just trim and peel and then you’ve got a nice little piece of topinambour.

11. Use a small paring knife.

12. Cut another finger.

This is what a sharpened paring knife looks like.
Just so you know.

13. Remember, it’s not a good day in the kitchen if you don’t pick up your paring knife the wrong way at least a couple of times.

14. Cut the palm of your hand.

15. Don’t bother to wash your cuts. Those kitchen knives really aren’t that old and rusty! You’re in a hurry. And remember that it’s always a good idea to fortify your food with extra minerals, such as iron.

16. Several minutes after your patience has worn thin and your wounds are stinging, finish peeling the topinambours. Rinse under cold water to remove whatever remains of all that dirt and grit.

17. Know in your heart that there is no way you will ever be able to remove all the dirt, and you are sure to find some peel on your plate at suppertime, too.

The few topinambours here resulted in enough peelings
to fill this large coffee mug.

18. Toss the topinambours in a pot of boiling, lightly salted water. Allow to cook until pieces are tender. The consistency will be very much like that of a firm-fleshed boiled potato, such as Yukon Gold.

19. Drain, toss in a little butter, chopped shallots, maybe some parsley if you have any.

20. Serve — in small portions!

21. Because topinambours are notorious for provoking severe flatulence. I wasn’t kidding about the pain and suffering, you see.

They made an excellent accompaniment to the chicken I roasted last week, and at one meal I mixed them with some green peas. Quite delicious.

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04 March 2012

Interview: Catherine Karnow on Her Italian Photo Workshop Adventure

All photographs by Catherine Karnow©
Used with permission.

The photography of Catherine Karnow is familiar to even occasional readers of this blog: she took the picture of me that appears on the upper-right corner of every page. She’s also shared many other images with us, and generously so, since her work is regularly featured in many of the leading magazines in the world, notably including National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, both French and German GEO; she’s also been published in a number of travel and photojournalism books.

“Let them see your smiling face”:
Catherine Karnow at work.

Now my friend has launched an exciting new project, a 10-day photo workshop in Umbria, May 10–19. She’s planned a number of excursions with great potential for photographic opportunities, and she personally selected the base of operations, La Locanda della Quercia Calante, But because Catherine isn’t content merely to provide her students with fabulous scenery and sightseeing in a region known for its excellent food and wine, she’s also including daily yoga classes which, like the photo workshop itself, will be geared to all levels of practice.

It sounds like heaven, but at the moment it’s requiring almost every bit of her phenomenal energy and organizational skills. Reached by phone, “I’m gonna workshop until I drop!” she exclaims. “That’s kind of how I feel right now.” She took the time to tell us more about the workshop and, as a bonus, she shared the key to taking good pictures of people — surely the reason she always makes me look far handsomer than I deserve.

Benvenuti! Dining at La Locanda.

WVM: The plan for the workshop sounds like the greatest wish-fulfillment ever devised: it’s almost everything you love, all at once: travel, photography, cooking, and yoga.

CATHERINE KARNOW: Cooking is a tiny part of it! I wouldn’t say pizza-making is really cooking. But eating and learning about delicious Italian food, yes.

WVM: I’m not going to ask where you got the idea, because that seems pretty obvious — but where did you get the idea that you could make this work?

CK: [Laughs.] I figure there’s a lot of people out there like me, who love photography, eating delicious food, doing yoga every day, having great experiences, and Italy. That’s it. People like me love all those things.

You’ve got to have yoga if 1) you’re going to be enjoying that much Italian food, and 2) if you’re running around, taking pictures, going to festivals, getting up before dawn to shoot. Yoga is counteracting all that pasta and all that craziness.

WVM: Tell me about La Locanda della Quercia Calante.

CK: I fell in love with La Locanda the moment I first saw it. I went there last year for a yoga workshop, and within a day, I knew it was the perfect place for my photo workshop. It’s got rustic cottages spread out — two stone cottages with eight rooms each — in a lovely, serene setting of grassy lawn and tall trees. There’s a spring-fed swimming pool. It’s so peaceful and beautiful, [providing] an opportunity for people to slow down, learn about photography, talk about photography, and to bond with each other.

There’s also a beautiful yoga room. If the weather permits, you dine at a long table underneath this arbor. It’s so, so beautiful. I am extremely particular when it comes to lodging. This is tasteful, rustic, and serene.

WVM: It’s in the Umbrian countryside, right?

CK: Yes, it’s in the countryside, about 20 minutes from Orvieto. It’s flat with low rolling hills. Sometimes it looks like that classic Italian countryside with the row of cypress trees lining a road to a farmhouse. You’ve seen those scenes: vineyards, rolling hills, hilltop villages. The light’s nice.

The people in Umbria are genuinely happy to see you because they haven’t been overrun with visitors and tourists, which is the case with areas of Tuscany and other parts of Italy.

Umbria may not be as well-trodden by tourists as other parts of Italy, but it’s full of treasures.

WVM: What will a typical day entail?

CK: A typical day will have one or two exciting photography experiences, such as going out with fishermen at dawn, as they fish the traditional way on the beautiful lake nearby, and then perhaps visiting and photographing and learning about a classic ceramics studio in a town famous for its ceramics. Lunch at a local restaurant, an hour of yoga, time for individual and group critique of photographs. Dinner at La Locanda, where the food is absolutely delicious — and a lot of it is organic — with free-flowing wine. That would be a typical day.

Hungry yet?

The other great thing about this workshop is that almost everything is included. Every meal but maybe a couple of lunches and a dinner. All wine, everything. You don’t have to pay extra for this and that: it’s a generous workshop, with no hidden charges. In sum, this workshop is the kind of workshop, the place we’re staying, the food that I would want if I were going to spend a week in Italy. And my standards are very high! [Laughs.]

WVM: What kinds of issues will you be addressing in the workshoppers’ photography? What will you be trying to correct, and what will you be looking to draw out more?

CK: First of all, there’s no required ability level for this workshop. I just ask that people use SLRs [single-lens reflex] to shoot with, rather than point-and-shoot. And we will be photographing landscapes, people, motion. We’re going out with the Cinquecento car club so that we learn to shoot motion. Dusk. Scenes. Festival activity. Food. Churches.

My goal as a teacher is to guide a student to be able to express him or herself. I don’t place a big emphasis on buttons and dials, the technical aspect of photography. It’s important to know the basics, and beyond that, if people want to know more, I’m happy to tell them more. But this isn’t a class on photo shop. I don’t think that fancy equipment and advanced technological skill guarantee good photographs. They’re not essential. We will be learning what does make a picture good, quote-unquote.

WVM: What do you look for in a picture?

CK: Emotion. Energy. Sometimes, not always, it’s getting the moment. A picture should make you feel something. But there are no rules. It’s important that students understand that.

Orvieto at dusk: Twilight poses a challenge to many photographers. Catherine will show her students how to rise to the occasion.

WVM: Your photographs of people have always knocked me out. Is there a secret to getting good photographs of people? Why do you succeed when others don’t?

CK: The secret to good people pictures is that your subject trusts you and feels comfortable with you. Their first impression of you has to be that they see your smiling face. I do think that’s important. They need to see your smiling face, not some camera that you’re hiding behind. Because you want them to feel like the photography is collaborative, and you want them to feel encouraged and affirmed.

I am honestly interested in them, and I’m thrilled – I literally feel a frizzle of happiness that the camera can be this way – that I can stop somebody and we can meet. I can be quite shy without the camera, and the camera — instead of being this tool that intimidates, it can be this excuse to meet somebody.

Daylight, camera, action! Catherine and her students will join traditional Umbrian fishermen on their morning rounds.

But my enthusiasm for people is genuine. I’m genuinely curious about who they are, what they’re doing, what they think. And I want to have a conversation. If they or the situation is particularly beautiful, I want to capture it. I want to show that. It’s actually hard to articulate this thought, because any way I say it sounds aggressive. It’s almost like a need to make this situation or this beautiful person into a beautiful photograph. The camera gives you this reason to stop and talk with people, encouraging them, giving them a sense of affirmation is so important.

It seems to me that what I’m saying is extremely obvious, and to some it might seem obvious. But I’ve watched other people at work, with all kinds of cameras, and I’ve watched them approach people. I just shake my head, because it’s not effective. They lift their camera before they make eye contact. And let’s just say there are a lot of ways. It’s not the same every time. Sometimes I shoot more journalistically.

A dish fit for a king:
Catherine plans a visit to a local ceramics studio.

But in a certain kind of photography, where people are aware of you and you’re kind of making the photograph together. I just watch other people work, and 1) they have the camera in front of their face all the time, and 2) if you see their expression as they approach the person or situation, it’s either impossible to read the expression or they’re somehow projecting something a little bit negative. They’re not thinking of the person or the people they want to photograph.

If you put yourself in their shoes, what do they see when they look at you? They should see somebody who looks positive and open and happy. It sounds so cheesy, and of course it’s not like that all the time with me, but their first impression should be positive.

WVM: They’re not defensive. They’re at ease.

Hot wheels: A member of the Cinquecento club shows off his Fiat, an object lesson in motion for photography students.

CK: Of course! I mean, if you invited guests into your home, wouldn’t you greet them with a smile on your face? Wouldn’t you invite them in, in a gracious way? You’re not just going to leave the door open and look over with a confused expression.

WVM: People think about the picture, not the subject.

CK: Exactly! They’re thinking, what setting should I put this on. And then the subjects just walk away.

The other key to photographing people is to join in. Be a part of what they’re doing or feeling. Blend in, join in. That means you yourself have to adjust your body language, your tone of voice, whatever it is. If everybody’s having a great time at a festival, be joyous. That doesn’t mean you have to drink or dance, but exude joy. If it’s a funeral procession, be humble, be serious, keep your head bowed, get permission, even just with your eyes to make sure it’s okay. Adjust yourself.

The swimming-pool at La Locanda is fed by a mineral spring.

WVM: Again, it sounds like you’re showing your interest. What they’re doing and feeling matters to you.

CK: Right. I always talk to people, too. I chat with them. So the third important thing is that they see me as a human being. I chat with them about anything. If there’s a language problem, just gesture and smile and nod. You can say, “Aww, she’s so beautiful,” whether it’s a baby or a dog, and yet everybody knows what you’re saying, in any language. I always try to have a translator – and we will have a translator, by the way – but there are different ways to communicate. So I always try to talk to people or communicate in some way.

“Awww, they’re so beautiful, too!”

WVM: What else do we need to know about the workshop?

CK: There’s hundreds of workshops out there right now. I can tell you that this is very special. A) you have yoga. B) you have as a special guest a National Geographic Traveler photo editor – that’s pretty amazing. C) you have all these special, unique, insider experiences, going to people’s homes to watch them and to prepare with them a fabulous lunch or a ceramic dish. Every experience is unique and special.

It’s how I work. Sometimes I walk around a village, more or less like a tourist, of course. Sometimes I set up a tripod at dusk – anybody can do that, it’s not an insider experience. But as I say, I’ve handpicked the fun parts, so we don’t have to visit ten different shepherds, I’m going to take you to the best one. I’ve already done all the scouting for this. I’ve handpicked all these people and places. I did go to see a lot of shepherds, now we have the good shepherd!

The best Umbrian shepherd,
taking a break from his day’s labor.

Catherine Karnow’s Photo Workshop in Umbria:
A Unique Experience.

For more information and registration, click here.

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