Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving thanks in Claremont

    This was my column in the November 15 Claremont Courier. Need I say more?


   When I Nyoman Wenten put on the mask, the world changed.
   Yes, his face had disappeared, replaced by another face, one with a garish, lascivious, all but evil smile. But he wasn’t just dressing up. He wasn’t just putting on a costume, putting on a mask. When he put the mask on, he was suddenly, for a few minutes, a garish, lascivious man, a charming snake of a character, glad-handing those around him.
   Mr. Wenten had the audience mesmerized, seized with laughter and amazement. Indeed, the world had changed, and we were in a place where we were in the throes of this sly stranger, so easily seduced by him. All this was done with a mask - a point made clear with this being the last of a series of masks that Mr. Wenten donned, creating not only different but varying degrees of effects.
   This was a stunning highlight in an evening of highlights late last month as Mr. Wenten, who leads the Pomona College gamelan dance program, joined Leonard Pronko and Thomas Leabhart, two other professors in Pomona College’s Department of Theatre and Dance, in a panel discussion on “Movement in Theater: Tradition and Innovation.” Moderated by Laurie Cameron, who directs the college’s Dance Program, the presentation in the college’s intimate Rose Hills Theater was most appropriate in this season of harvest. With Mr. Wenten, Leabhart and Pronko, all of whom have earned international acclaim, not only speaking about but also demonstrating their craft, it was a cornucopia of the extraordinary theatrical talent and wisdom that Pomona College and Claremont is privileged to enjoy.
   That Mr. Wenten, a native of Bali, came from a long line of great artists, including a grandfather who was a master puppeteer who he first studied with, and is one of the island’s most accomplished dancers and musicians is no surprise. There is a long list of productions, collaborations and performances that he has been involved in all over the world, but his great poise and discipline, his rich talent, was evident in the way he sat and smiled, in the way he walked and moved his arms, even before he took up any mask.
   Even though Thomas Leabhart does not come from a long line of renowned artists, he is certainly a master in his field, a physical movement discipline called Corporeal mime. As he explained and demonstrated, often with the tiniest of movements, the idea is not to imitate, as in pantomime, but to capture a spirit or essence, even an idea, in movement.
   I have long admired this in his work at Pomona College, where Mr. Leabhart has taught since 1982. While many of the plays he has directed here don’t feature what I think of as mime, there is a noticeable sensitivity, a delicate quality, yes, an elegance. I still think of a production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind that he directed years ago, emphasizing compassion in what could be a melodramatic domestic violence drama with off-kilter characters.
   Mr. Leabhart got much of his training in France, where he still teaches every summer and every January. He mentioned that while Hollywood is important and valuable, it is vital to do art for more than “the filthy lucre,” and it is clear that he is dedicated to his craft. He can be found every afternoon at 4:15 teaching Corporeal Mime.
   And then there was Leonard Pronko, who has been teaching at Pomona College since 1957 (“Do the math,” as Ms. Cameron said in introducing him). I have always known Mr. Pronko as a legend in Claremont, putting on Kabuki plays with the students and being one of the few - or only? - Americans to be trained in the tradition-steeped Kabuki theater in Japan. What I didn’t know is that he didn’t get interested in theater until several years after he began teaching at Pomona, having gotten his B.A, M.A and Ph.D in French and Spanish language and literature and starting off at the college as an instructor in French, occasionally teaching Spanish and Italian. It wasn’t until after he taught courses on French theater, occasionally directed plays and taught drama courses in the theater department and spent a sabbatical mostly in Asia and subsequently studied kabuki at the National Theater of Japan that he found his home in the theater department.
   Although, as he noted repeatedly, he is not as agile as in years past, Mr. Pronko demonstrated vividly how, in kabuki, small movements and gestures can convey volumes. He also showed how a prop like a fan can be anything from a sword to a vessel for drinking tea.
   This discipline and theatricality has been seen in not only the kabuki plays in English but also the many, many other plays he has directed here when not involved in other projects in numerous countries. Over the years, I have enjoyed seeing the kabuki works and how they have influenced his other period productions of works by the likes of Ibsen, Schiller, Wilde and Molliere, and it has been particularly pleasant to see these period pieces (perhaps influenced by a colleague?) not only done with poise but getting more and more refined and naturalistic.
   Seeing these fine men of the theater, each wearing a shirt that nicely reflected their distinct craft, talk about and share their art was a real treat. It was a delectable taste and a sweet reminder of the wisdom and talent that the colleges and Claremont are blessed to have in their midst.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fields of violence

   “Positive motivation is ‘Get the...up! You’re dragging, man! Pick it the...up! Suck it up!’ Because you feel like you know the guy. You feel like it’s your brother, and you’ve got to make that connection so that you can come together.”
   To retired NFL two-time All-Pro tackle Kyle Turley quoted in a recent Los Angeles Times article by Sam farmer, telling your brother - your little brother, “just like I would to my little brother in a pickup basketball game” - to “suck it up” and to “get the...up” is not only not wrong. It is expected.
   At least in the National Football League. As Turley explained, when Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito - I thought this was a joke at first! - left messages laced with racial slurs and profanities on his African-American teammate Jonathan Martin’s phone, Incognito wasn’t being a bigoted bully. Apparently reflecting what many NFL players think, Turley posits that there was nothing wrong with this behavior and also that it is possible that Incognito was carrying out orders from his coaches to “toughen up” Martin.
   Turley says it flat-out. “Positive motivation in the NFL could in the real world be considered bullying.” He goes further, saying, “It’s aboard for the real world to accept this [behavior], and nobody should, but this is not the real world. This is football.”
   Perhaps this isn’t surprising or even disturbing. Lately, we have been hearing a whole lot about the violence in playing the game and how many players are left with physical and mental disabilities, sometimes quite severe. A lawsuit resulting in the NFL pledging millions of dollars for disabled retired players, with many questions as to if the amount is enough, was big news, and there was lots of buzz about the PBS Frontline report called “League of Denial.”
   A few days after the Turley article appeared, Farmer had a story about a former NFL player whose eye was severely damaged in an initiation ritual. As the player described it, the rookie players had to run down a hallway lined with older players who hit and kicked the passing rookies in every way and as much as they could. This player had almost made it through the gauntlet when he was hit in the eye with a sock filled with coins.
   This was called an accident, but what is definitely disturbing is that this roughness and bullying is seen not only as not wrong and as expected but as an important way of bonding. As Turley put it, “You feel like it’s your brother, and you’ve got to make that connection so that you can come together.”
   Even more disturbing, as Bill Dwyre pointed out in a column accompanying the Turley article, people decry the bullying and the injuring that goes on in the NFL but continue to contribute to millions and millions of dollars going to the league (broadcast deals, tickets, merchandise, etc.). Most chilling, though, is this strange way of bonding and where it leads. As Dwyre writes, referring to a reader commenting on Jonathan Martin who left the team, “‘The other guy’s a wimp,’ says Fred from Fresno. ‘Too gutless to fight back. I sure wouldn’t want to go to war with him.”
   So that’s what all this tough playing and rough bonding, which you know happens not only in the NFL, is all about? Being able to go to war?
   Meanwhile, Incognito has filed a grievance over his suspension. And I love what Dwyre had to say to the reader: “Whatever, Fred. As soon as you get off the radio, go outside and tear some wings off a butterfly. You’ll feel better.”
   Seriously, though, it’s terrible enough that the butterfly is getting hurt. If only that was all that’s being damaged.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Watts up

   Here is a column I recently wrote for the Claremont Courier.


   I had no idea.
   It was like when I see an altar set up for the Day of the Dead. With it being the season of Halloween and El Dia de los Muertos, I thought of how, in the face of death, the lives of many, so many I didn’t know but so precious, are celebrated. I see and get to know these beloved lives in bright colors, new once again in the merry dance of skeletons, against the black.
   It was like when I go up to Mt. Baldy Village and am surprised to see a whole other world there. I don’t go for months and months, forgetting that it’s there (as if I don’t see it day after day), and then I’m amazed once again to see this nice little get-away less than half an hour away. Even if this world a short drive off isn’t a wintry white one, it’s always different.
   It was like when, as happened recently, I learned that a friend, a friend who lost his partner just a few months earlier, has lung cancer. It was a shock, a rude, abrupt shock, coming after his loss and all the more because he wasn’t a smoker. I was also reminded, though, of the important, valuable role he has played in my life and also of both the strength and fragility of our lives.
   But this was different. This was altogether different and altogether unique. I really did have no idea.
   Even if I did have some idea when I ventured out towards Los Angeles with a friend on a recent warm Saturday when there was a lull in Claremont. I wanted to go to a few places where I’ve been wanting to go for years, and one of these places was the Watts Towers. I have always heard that the Watts Towers were quite remarkable, and I had seen plenty of photographs and films, but, as I kept exclaiming to my friend, “I had no idea!”
   This was while we were on a guided tour - a tour that we happened to arrived just in time for and which made a real difference (well worth the $8 adult fee). Although one can get remarkably close to the towers without going into the property and seeing them that way is impressive,  it is the details and seeing them up close and personal that make this piece of art so very remarkable.
   It is a work of art, an outstanding example of what is called “folk art.” The Watts Towers were literally a backyard project, done right behind a small house by an Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia, who was a tile maker and construction worker by trade, a bit of a roustabout and hard-headed by nature and had no art training. The project, which Rodia had no help on - he didn’t want any - took about 30 years, ending around 1955.
   Rodia, who was also called Sam and several other names and whose first wife left him because of his drinking, may have known zero about art, but he definitely had vision, not to mention drive. I remarked to my friend that he must have been O.C.D and on acid.
   On the narrow, triangular plot, Rodia created something like a ship featuring the famed tall mast-like spires and with everything covered in cement embedded with all sorts of broken colored glass and china. As Rodia told people, this was all inspired by the gothic cathedrals, with their tall, narrow spires, and other religious art and architecture that he saw when growing up in Italy.
   Again, this was based on what he saw, not on any training in art, and, again, while seeing the towers from outside the property makes quite an impression, it is the work on the walls and smaller structures inside that is really stunning. For example, one wall features the bottoms of green 7-Up and blue Milk of Magnesia bottles - remember them? - creating an eye-popping effect. And, everywhere, there are pieces of china, from hundreds of colored plates and blue-and-white Wedgewood sets. There are pieces of tea cups and mugs with handles left on, and even the undersides of structures are covered with colored bits of all kinds.
   As I said, it is stunning and eye-popping, mind-boggling, and clearly the work of someone with unique vision and drive. One wall is embedded with shoes belonging to Rodia and his second wife, who left him because of him devoting so much time to his backyard project.
   The small house is gone - burned down around one Fourth of July, leaving behind its foundation and fireplace -  but there’s still more to this incredible story. When Rodia got tired of the project, he literally gave the property to a neighbor and moved north to Martinez. A bit later, the city of Watts wanted to raze the property, but a bunch of people raised all sorts of protests, and the city promised to leave the towers up if they survived a stress test. During the test, the truck that was chained to the towers - not the towers - fell over.
   So the towers, which Rodia walked away from after working on them for thirty years, are still there, still standing (though now with a few cables required by Cal OSHA), and I am amazed that I had not been there - yes, I really did have no idea! - and that there weren’t dozens of people there (only one other guy was one the tour, although it was awesome having the place to ourselves!). But that’s the other thing that makes the Watts Towers so very remarkable - that they’re in the middle of a neglected and drab, blighted area and right there, right on the sidewalk, with people living just across the narrow street. While I was there, a neighbor was playing loud ranchero music.
   As much as there is going on here in Claremont, with all sorts of creative activities of note, Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers are a striking reminder, in a place far and not so far off, of the power of vision and passion. They stick up, poke out, with the unlikeliest of bright colors when life is a bit too boring, a bit too expected, a bit too tiring.
   The towers have certainly given Watts, which has seen more than its share of beleaguerment, a poke. Next door is an arts center inspired by them, where the tour begins and end and where there is the buzz of community and creativity. When my friend and I were looking around the gallery, there was a piano lesson going on at the center of the room.