Lovely Cadiz

Lovely Cadiz
Cadiz - my favorite place so far in the trip to Southern Spain

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bloggo Reflectivo: A Week in Manhattan


Dottore Gianni is in a reflective mood this morning, as he sits on the floor of his new apartment and awaits the delivery of his modest new dining room table and chairs. He spent seven days in New York City last week, his first visit in two years, and very much enjoyed it. At the same time the trip was bittersweet for several reasons.

Why did I go? Well, very kindly and flatteringly, members of the faculty
My field studies colleagues at breakfast
 of the Department of Theatre Arts invited me about two weeks prior to the event known as Field Studies. For those of you who don’t know, Field Studies is an annual pilgrimage to Manhattan by senior theatre students and their faculty mentors. During the week the seniors sit in panels and travel to offices and theatres in different parts of the city to get to know alumni most of whom are working in the business, and to learn from them how to get work, how to deal with a rough and expensive city, and how to stay sane as they make the transition. The seniors also see five plays and musicals during their stay, so a good bit of work is mixed with a measure of pleasure.
The BA Forum Panel on the first day of Field Studies
My job for the past many years has been to shepherd the B.A. Drama students, for whom I have been faculty coordinator ever since I arrived at Ithaca in 1990, through the course of Field Studies. It started in 2000, when I was added to the list of Field Studies faculty primarily to do something with the students while the performance majors rehearsed and executed their “showcase.” That audition-style event was conducted on Monday afternoon and evening of the week until a few years ago, when it was wisely shifted to the end of the school year (so as to give the graduating senior actors an immediate shot at work, rather than having to remind agents and casting directors that they were seen by them in a showcase three months prior).

Monday afternoons were relatively useless times for the B.A. students until I was drafted to lead them on what has become known as Dr. Jack’s 
DJ's Dowtown Tour at the Cherry Lane
Spring 2013
Downtown Theatre Tour. I created this tour to give the seniors an activity during those hours, but also because Field Studies is focused largely on Broadway, or at least on Midtown Manhattan. I wanted to show the B.A.s at least the other theatres in town, and also to remind them of subjects discussed in my Theatre History course, which they took in their sophomore year.

The downtown tour has varied from year to year in specifics, often because of the weather (it can be and has been bitter cold in mid-March, as well as rainy, icy or snowy) but also because my thinking has evolved about where to begin, what to include. Also on various visits alums have had work in the area and can get us into theatres, notably the Lucille Lortel, the Cherry Lane, the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) and the Public.  Once we were lucky enough to be
The recently restored Public Theatre
 taken into La Mama ETC by one of the fellows who worked there, even though we had no alum presence at that grand dame of Off-Off Broadway.

Those of you who are theatre-savvy will know just by my mentioning the theatres above that the tour focuses primarily on Off and Off-Off Broadway theatres, where two revolutions took place, the first in the early 1950s against commercial fare that seemed repetitive and not at all challenging, the second against the first, as by the end of the Fifties Off Broadway was already becoming stodgy and institutionalized, in the minds of many young artists.

I’ve only missed two of these field studies weeks, one when I was on a year-long sabbatical in 2005-06 and last year (2011-12) which was my final year and during which I took a final, or TERMINAL sabbatical. Sounds like a disease from which one never recovers, doesn’t it? That I was invited back this year was especially sweet for me, as the students involved were the last group to whom I taught Theatre History. Icing on the cake? I also got to know many of them better during last academic year for while I was in London, so were many of them.

With the exception of a few students that I interviewed for the B.A. program and/or advised in their freshman year, after this academic year I will be 
The celebration at my last history class.
spring 2011
“history.” At colleges institutional memory lasts only about four years, for obvious reasons. Oh, my colleagues remember me, most I’m happy to say fondly, and who knows? I may be invited back in a year or two to receive Emeritus status. It all depends on the whim of the faculty. Actually I’ve already been invited back, after a fashion, by Logan Tracey, one of my former students who is a point person on next year’s reunion. She wrote me first thing, because she likes and admires me, also because she, probably rightly, thinks that my presence might draw in a few more students that would otherwise have not attended. We’ll see.

But the point of that rather rambling last paragraph is that I am now really out to pasture, and while in part that is a very good thing, it also feels a tad bittersweet, as I noted above. For a long time my life consisted of teaching and advising students, and as I look back on a life that is probably 70 to 80% behind me, those years were the most successful of my life. I was a good teacher and probably an even better adviser. The students knew it, my colleagues knew it, and best of all I knew it. After approximately 20 years of floating around the theatre industry, never knowing how good I was, and for the most part thinking that I could not have been all that good, judging from the amount of work that I landed, it was a great relief to be positively reinforced almost daily.

Nor did it hurt to receive a decent paycheck every two weeks!

Of course I still receive paychecks, well, retirement checks, that keep me about as solvent as I was during my 20-plus years at Ithaca College, but while I do not miss teaching as such, I do seem to miss the interaction with young people. I think I may have written earlier in this series of blog posts that I was convinced that absent the contact with my students, who I believe keep me young, I would shrivel up into some sort of prune-shaped object and fade rapidly away.

So far I’ve not, thank the gods, but one of the “bitter” aspects of last week was the presence of students, who breathed back some life and energy into a slightly diminished Doctor Jack/Dottore Gianni. I also found myself wanting to see more of them than I was able to, wanting more time with them than they were able or willing to allow me. Of course a few of them drove me mad, as a few of them had done daily throughout my more than 20 years of teaching. The names will be withheld to protect the guilty. But I was never got to have that drink with the TAMs for example, or to raise a pint with some of the B.A.s, performers or design/tech students that somehow I thought would come with the territory.

I DID get to meet alums, some of my very favorite former students, for dinner, drinks or coffee. And that was part of the “sweet” that Field Studies brought: Carly and her beau, Julie, Chrysta, Nick and Sam, Larry and Amanda, Maggie (actually two of those) briefly, Alison, a few others as well, but most of those for moments only before or after panels. And a rush of them made for me at the final reception. All that was rewarding and I really regret that I was unable to spend more time with all I saw, or any time with those I hoped to see but was unable to.
Dottore Gianni & Carly DiFulvio
Alison Riley Miller and I
after dinner with alums Julie Starr, Sam Byron
and Chrysta Naron - Nick Gandiello had to
dash off early and missed the photo opp
Jack with 07 alums Shauna Goodgold,
Abby Church and Marisa Dargahi
at the reception
So a fine week, but as I have written perhaps one too many times now, bittersweet.

My prime contributions included taking a group down to the New School on Bank Street (on a beautiful day, by the way) to chat with current grad student Sam Byron and the director of admissions about their programs in
At the subway station on our way to Brooklyn
 particular and grad school in general; to take a large group out to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to attend a panel with excellent alums Jeremy Pickard, Dan Lawrence, R.B. Schlather and surprise guest Dan Stermer, after which we saw the final dress of MARS, directed by Jeremy, designed by R.B. and performed by Dan with others; to take a smaller group to see Kali DiPippo at the New Victory Theatre to discuss youth theatre. And of course to take students on my downtown tour!

That tour was doomed to mediocrity because it was no longer held on a Monday, but on a Wednesday. First, and not atypically, the weather turned foul: a wintry mix along with gusty cold blasts of wind.  Monday is a 
BAs bundled up on the
subway train to the Downtown
Tour
“dark” day for most theatres and in the past I have been able to take students into a few, as I noted above in this post. Not so on Wednesday, so on a day of bad weather the tour turned into more of a slog than a pleasure. It was also sandwiched into a smaller amount of time than usual, so it had to be truncated. For the first time in memory I was unable to include the NYTW and La Mama, highlights of the tour but too far afield to visit given the amount of time and the nasty weather.

I’m sure several of the students thought it fine. Some obviously remembered theatre history lectures on the theatres, which of course delighted me. At the very end for example, Carly and Alyssa remembered the Astor Place Riots. I actually accomplished a very brief and uncoordinated jig when they did so.

But yes, that word again: bittersweet. For me.

Not surprisingly, given my impossible expectations, that some of the finest times were spent on my own. (This of course is true of ALL travels with that self-styled hermit Dottore Gianni!) 
Central Park from near Columbus Circle
The long walk around 8th, 9th and 10th Avenues, taking me to Lincoln Center and the southwest corner of Central Park, on the day I arrived, one day before the beginning of Field Studies. It was cold, but crisp and clear. 
Pret a Manger in Manhattan!
I also discovered on the walk that there was a Pret a Manger only a block away from the hotel! Prets are one of my favorite places to get a quick sandwich or bowl of soup in London, and I’m very pleased that more and more are springing up in New York City. I think I had four lunches at that Pret, and pretty pleased I was at that.

I also managed to spend a few hours on Tuesday at the Met (not the opera, the art museum). A confession: though I plan to see parts of the museum not all that well known to me I always seem to charge into parts I know well 
The Greek & Roman Galleries
at the Met
instead. The Greek and Roman rooms, particularly in the last few years since they have been re-invented in a wonderful way, draw me instantly, and that’s where I started last week. My spring break to Siracusa in Sicily last year made the yearning to return to that section all the stronger. Then I head upstairs to the rooms European art, which was my second area to visit last week. In spite of some seemingly major renovations many of my favorites were on display there, and were somewhat informed by my year abroad, particularly because of my seminar on Performing Arts and the French Revolution. Finally I wandered around the well-laid out American Wing…no time for other sections, alas, but a great excursion, on another crisp, beautiful morning.
The American Wing at the Met
My last excursion was first thing the morning of my last day in Manhattan. 
Along the High Line
I needed to be at Newark Airport for my afternoon departure, but managed to walk the latest “park” in Manhattan, the High Line, very man-made, very cleverly placed between 30th St and Gansevoort St on the west side, as the name implies ABOVE ground level, following old rail tracks through Chelsea and into the West Village. Following lousy weather Wednesday through Friday the temperatures warmed and the skies cleared for this final walk of mine.

The theatre we saw was with one or two fine exceptions, mediocre. Hands on a Hard Body was a disgrace, not just for its mediocre music and choreography (which some of my clever students dubbed “car-ography!” I’ll not bother to explain, and I’d urge you not to bother with the show, which most egregiously attempted to deal with several real problems such as the recession and illegal aliens with one quick musical number after another – shudder! Ann, a one-person show based on the life of Ann Richards, feisty governor of Texas, was a good effort but would have benefited by being cut of about an hour’s worth of material. Better was Lucky Guy, primarily because of Tom Hanks’s energetic performance as Mike McAlary, controversial tabloid journalist. It was far too long – one wonders how it might have changed had its author, Nora Ephron, not died before previews began – there seemed as a result a reverence for all of her words, which were not all that good. Earlier in the day we had as I mentioned above, gone out to Brooklyn to see the Superhero Clubhouse production of MARS, one of alum Jeremy Pickard’s plays about the environment, using each of the planets as platforms to look down on earth and its lack of being “green.” While it may not have been everyone’s cuppa, I very much enjoyed this piece that mixed dance, song and dialogue, and which employed projections to good effect as well.

Perhaps the best day of mid-town theatre was Wednesday, when we saw the much lauded (and deservedly so) Once, based upon the film about a Dublin musician and the young Czech woman who resurrects him and his music. The film was fine, but the creative team managed to theatricalize it in a most inventive manner. I was delighted. That evening we saw Old Hats, featuring two old pros in fine form, Bill Irwin and David Shiner, up to their old shenanigans and proving that “age cannot wither…nor custom stale” their talents, accompanied by the delightfully sinister pianist/singer Nellie Mackay – this was pure joy and offered a well-deserved barrel of laughs at mid-week.

On my own Friday night I ventured out to what proved a disappointment: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a spoof of Chekhov by Christopher Durang. Looking forward to a very clever piece I found much of it childishly stupid. Fine performers reduced to ridiculous antics, redeemed only occasionally by bravura turns topped by David Hyde-Pierce’s long speech using Uncle Vanya’s breakdown to mock, among other things, age in general and the digital age in particularly. I seemed the only person in the audience who did not instantly leap to his feet at curtain call. Well, there was one other, directly in front of me. This man was so informed he had to be separated slowly from his walker and more or less backed down into his seat. In other words he couldn’t have stood on his own if he’d tried. I just didn’t want to.

So, to sum up, a very good week, but bittersweet.

Coda: a comedy of errors at the airport, and an appropriate read

I got to Newark early, and all looked good to go on time, if not even a few minutes early. We were boarded by a rather grumpy flight attendant, and then we waited. There was a little activity in the cockpit, and all of a sudden we heard that due to a “crew discrepancy” we had to go back in the terminal 
Waiting to re-board our tiny jet
at Newark Airport
and await instructions. Everyone was pretty grumpy by this point, and a number of thoughts were offered as to why this happened and to what a “crew discrepancy” referred. We found out via a bold passenger that the captain and the flight attendant got into a verbal altercation just before we boarded, and the captain said something to the attendant to the effect of: “If you don’t like it you can leave.” And sure enough the guy left! So WE were left with no flight attendant and were unable to fly. WHATTTTT!!! That was a new one on me. It took about an hour and a half to locate a new flight attendant. There just happened to be one in the terminal, otherwise the flight may have been cancelled, so while people were getting more and more irked by the moment, it could have been worse. When we saw our new attendant, an attractive African American woman, arrive at the gate we all applauded. Within moments we were back on board and preparing to pull back from the gate. The woman was god’s gift to flight attendants! I don’t remember when I’ve seen one SO friendly and solicitous, so charming. In fact I got it into my head that the airlines must keep people like these on hand as secret weapons against anger and even lawsuits. So that was miracle number one. Miracle number two was that for the first time in my memory, when our tiny jet pulled out and headed towards the take-off runway we were number TWO in line! I have never been on a flight out of Newark that actually left the ground without having to wait for planes which were hopelessly backed up. And this was a very busy Saturday afternoon. I think that we must have been given priority, again to keep people from reprisals against the airline. Whatever the real story, I will not forget the weird reason for the delay, and more importantly the goddess of the skies who came to our rescue and allowed the flight to go forward.

I had nothing to read for the wait at the airport, so I did something I don’t usually do. I bought a book at Hudson News, the ubiquitous stand at transportation hubs, be they bus, train or airport, in the vicinity of New York City. I almost never buy because I’m not a great fan of best sellers, and I don’t like to pay inflated prices for books. 
So I was very pleased to see a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, one of the favorite novels of my youth. For a number of reasons, including perhaps to try to re-capture some of my youth, I have been intending to read it, and because it has been made into a motion picture there it was featured at the airport! Little did I know when I bought it how much of it I’d be able to read before our flight finally left, but I’m very glad I did.

On the Road reminds me that I AM back on the road. That trip to New York was only the second I have taken since retirement longer than a day trip. And while it may have been somewhat bittersweet it was a great time away, and it WAS in fact travels! This blog was begun because of a request by two students, Kelsey and Jen, that I write about my travels. Lately it has turned into a blog about my experiences at concerts of classical music, but with any luck more of the posts in the future will return to the topic of travels with Dottore Gianni/Dr Jack in search of whatever. Here’s hoping…and to quote Kerouac: “Lackadaddy I was on the road again!”

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