Friday, May 22, 2015

Commencing to different beats

   This past weekend was Commencement Weekend at the Claremont Colleges. There were seven graduations, and I went to three of them to hear the speakers.  This is easier to do now that they are spread out over Saturday and Sunday instead of all on Sunday afternoon, as they were until about five years ago.  Also, I leave right after the speaker is done, before the reading of all those names, as rude as this may be.  Here are a few brief observations from this year’s venture. 
  Pitzer College, where the graduates wear white robes with bright orange sashes, was, as always, pretty out there – or even more out there.  In a new twist, the graduates entered accompanied by a raucous marching band that featured men on very high stilts and at least one sporting a mohawk. Quite a Saturday morning wake-up!  In the tradition of student-chosen speakers who are provocative if not flat-out controversial, a la Angela Davis a few years ago, the speaker was Janet Mock, the outspoken trans-woman author, television host and activist.  Her speech was a bit canned, but commencement addresses are so tricky with all those folks just itching to get out, and she did encourage the grads to be their true, perhaps challenging selves. 
   The Saturday afternoon commencement at Claremont McKenna College couldn’t have been more different, starting off with a prayer and the singing of the alma mater.  There was also, as always, a Latin salutation, given by a co-ed pair of students, although it was presented with much humor and sense of fun.  The speaker, who received an honorary degree, was Azar Nafisi, the Iranian author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. She had lots of interesting insights – perhaps too many.  There was the sense that the officials were not happy with how long she went on and that the proverbial hook was waiting in the wings.  Did she perhaps drink a bit too much at lunch?  (I was reminded of when Paul Conrad, the late, very liberal Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist, spoke at this conservative, formerly men’s college’s commencement years ago, and there was considerable grumbling.  Then again, Ken Kesey was the speaker a few years later.)
   Then there was Pomona College graduation on Sunday morning.  Pomona is the oldest college in Claremont and arguably the most prestigious, and it’s not shy about it (there are t-shirts that say “Harvard: the other Pomona”). There were four speakers, in addition to the student speakers, and all got honorary degrees, including the “keynote speaker,” France Cordova, the head of the National Science Foundation. Plus he excellent Glee Club performed two songs. This all took more than an hour and a half, before the parade of several hundred graduates, one at a time, across the stage. 
   But it still made for quite a uniquely pleasant Sunday morning, especially with the clouds burning off, as was the case this year.  Unlike the other ceremonies, held under giant tents, Pomona’s is held under great, old sycamore trees in a picaresque quadrangle, and there were people sitting and laying on the lawn. And, in a super-nice touch, free coffee was available.  Like I said, quite a pleasant Sunday morning. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

A life, and lives, directed

   Again, Claremont is a remarkable place to live. Here is my recent Claremont Courier column. 


   Usually, when I buy a ticket, I feel happy.  I feel excited.  I feel lucky and privileged that I get to see the performance.  I might feel relieved that I managed to snag the ticket. I don’t usually feel sad, like I want to weep. 
   But it was different a few weeks ago when I went to Pomona College to buy a ticket for the year-end dance concert there.  It was different, because when I was at the box office window, I saw Betty Bernhard. 
  That is, I saw her name.  It was on one of the production posters that line the back of the box office.  “Directed by Betty Bernhard.” Actually, it was on a number of the posters, but seeing one was enough to make me feel like weeping. 
   I guess it really hit me then: There will be no more new production posters, at Pomona College or anywhere else, with her name on it. 
   It was hard enough when I went to see a production at Seaver Theater last month and saw a notice in the program honoring her. Not only was such a notice unusual, it said that she “is survived by” a daughter and two grandchildren and a sister.  It didn’t make sense that Betty Bernhard had died.  I had just seen a wonderful production of Sarah Ruhl’s sophisticated, Victorian-era sex comedy,  In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), directed by her a month earlier.  A friend who I saw there had mentioned the possibility of working on a project with her. 
   Then, a week later, there was an obituary in the Courier. It was there that I read that she succumbed to brain cancer, a month after being diagnosed with it.  Was she still working on the play when she was sick, perhaps knowing she was dying?  I wondered.  
   I later learned that she had to stop working not long after rehearsals began but not before she had chosen the cast and set the scene, so to speak.  This is but more evidence of “her strength and sense of purpose, her good will and generosity of spirit and her passionate love for the art form” that the program notice mentioned.  It certainly was evident in all her work directing plays at Pomona College, where she joined the theater department in 1984. She was clearly passionate about theater and helping Claremont colleges students develop their skills, as she directed over 30 full-length plays and musicals, including a stunning, remarkably crisp Hamlet  and some of which reflected her deep interest in Indian Sanskrit theater.
   It was not only at Pomona College and in the theater where Betty Bernhard worked during these years. A year and a half ago, I wrote about seeing a documentary film that she made, Out! Loud!, about people in the gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender community in India performing a play.  She also made other documentary films in India about sex workers doing theater work and women theater artists.  As a Fullbright Scholar in India in 1993 and 2004, she directed three full-length plays there, and, last month, she was named a Founding Mother of Asian Theater Scholarship by the Association of Asian Performance. Championing theater by, for and about women, minorities and other under-represented group was key in this life’s work. 
   The sudden loss of this work and the riches it brought is indeed sad.  But, as those posters with her name on them also show, Betty Bernhard’s work and that still being done by her colleagues is at least as inspiring, leaving us with hope and things to look forward to. 
   That much was clear at a panel discussion held in Betty Bernhard’s memory at Seaver Theater on a recent Friday afternoon.  The presentation was put on by Claremont in Entertainment and Media, a group of graduates from the Claremont colleges who are working in the entertainment field. 
   Who knew there was this alumni group made up of actors, producers, writers, studio executives, agents, casting directors and other professionals?  I didn’t, and I was pretty excited to find out about it. 
   The panel alone was exciting enough. I didn’t find out about it until that afternoon, and what drew me – clearly, the big draw – was Richard Chamberlain, “the king of the miniseries” who I learned long ago was a graduate of Pomona College.  Others on the panel included Matt Baer, a Pitzer College graduate who produced last year’s Unbroken and the recently released Maggie, and Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, a Scripps College graduate who is now board president of the Levitt Pavilions.  (This organization puts on free summer concerts, including in Pasadena and Los Angeles, as well as three a year at Scripps College.)
   Perhaps the most intriguing member on the panel was Gregory Rae, a computer science major at Harvey Mudd College who ended up being a four-time Tony Award winning producer whose credits include The Normal Heart , Hedwig and the Angry Inch , Clydbourne Park and Kinky Boots) as well a gay activist. As I said, who knew? 
   It was fun hearing how these people were influenced by their days in Claremont.  For example, Mr.  Chamberlain said he always loved movies but was shy and awkward until encouraged to get on the stage at Pomona and then, before he knew it, was not only working as an actor but was famous, starring in Dr. Kildare  not long after graduating.  Mr.  Rae shared that being a R.A in the dorm was not unlike putting together a Broadway show.   
   Even more remarkable is that, as I said, I didn’t know about this panel discussion until earlier that afternoon when I attended another presentation at Seaver Theater.  This one featured Mary Schmich, a Pomona College graduate who wrote the Brenda Starr comic strip for 25 years and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, famous for her “Wear Sunscreen” column.  (As she mentioned in answering questions, she doesn’t know and isn’t too concerned about how the column ended up being attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and she wrote it in an afternoon before deadline when she couldn’t think of what to write about.) I wished I had known that, earlier that day in Seaver Theater, James Turrell, the world-renown artist who does fascinating work with light and is a Pomona College graduate, was in conversation with Ed Krupp, a fellow alum who is the charismatic director of the Griffith Observatory. 
   This is all quite a bounty, quite a legacy, among many such as the colleges close out another year and also say goodbye to a gifted teacher, artist and mentor. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Bureaucracy, as usual

  I got a letter the other day.  There was nothing unusual about that, of course, and it was not unusual that it was from the housing authority, saying that there would be an inspection at my house.  I have been getting a Section 8 rental subsidy for years, and one of the requirements is that there be an annual inspection.
   The letter was actually about a follow-up inspection.  After the initial inspection, some work had to be done, and this was an inspection to see if the work had been done. This was a bit unusual, but it has happened a fair amount in past years. 
   What was unusual – though I suspect not that unusual – is that the inspection had taken place two days before. Things began getting unusual three days earlier, when the inspection was supposed to happen, and I got a call from a woman at the housing authority saying that there wouldn’t be an inspection that day and asking if it could be rescheduled for the next day. This has never happened before, but it was okay, because it happened I had no plans for going out.
   Things really got unusual, if not downright crazy, when I got that letter.  It came on May 14, and it was dated May 11 and said an inspection would take place on May 12.
   What were they thinking?  Clearly, they weren’t thinking – they were probably just following procedure, most probably – and, again, I suspect it’s not that unusual. This is bureaucracy.  This is what is meant by the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.  Sure, it takes only pennies to prepare and mail such a letter, but who knows how many such letters are prepared and mailed (I have gotten them before), and lots of pennies do add up.  As you can gather from my recent posts, all these pennies can be spent in better ways.      

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

As steady, or unsteady, as change

   Yes, some things, like racial strife and poverty and the resulting injustice, don’t change.  Other things sometimes do.  Here is my latest Claremont Courier column. 


   Some things haven’t changed. 
   The film started late. When I got to the auditorium, I wondered if the screening was canceled, because it looked like no one was showing up. Maybe I hadn’t gotten the notice.  When I saw that the room was still empty at 7:30, when the film was scheduled to start, I asked the young woman who opened the door for me if I had the right time, and she said I did.  No problem.  No worries.
   Sure enough, people began coming in a few minutes later, and the film started after about 15 minutes.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  The late start was nothing new at Pitzer College, where the world is a bit less stressed and a bit more colorful if no less rigorous. After all, this is where I attended a Fall convocation years ago, and the faculty entered, eventually, to the strains of Cat Stevens’ “Oh They’re Young.” This is where the graduating seniors wear bright orange and white robes.  They may as well be wearing tye-dye. 
   As Ben Cotner noted, however, the room had changed. Mr.  Cotner, who graduated from Pitzer some years ago, spoke and answered questions after the film, The Case Against 8, which he directed along with Ryan White. He said that it felt a bit strange to be showing his documentary, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival and has been picked up by HBO, in a room where he took many classes. 
  It was no longer the dark and cramped, hole-in-the-wall Avery Hall with the ceiling pressing down, the wheelchair seating crammed in and the slamming doors opening onto the covered concrete walkway.  It was the more spacious and lighter George Benson Auditorium with a nice lobby featuring a colorful mural depicting social activism.  Although it is no architectural wonder, and although it is now several years old, it’s still a noticeable improvement. 
   That wasn’t the only change, though.  And it wasn’t just that a former student was now an award-winning documentary film maker featured on a major television channel back on campus. 
   Lots of things have changed. And they have changed a lot, as the film Mr.  Cotner made showed.  What’s more, things have changed even more than the documentary shows. 
   The Case Against 8 is a behind-the-scenes look at the effort to overturn Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California, in the courts. It is a compelling procedural, almost like a whodunit, with an emotional whallop, as it focuses on the gay and lesbian couples who were the plaintiffs and their remarkable lawyers, David Boies and Theodore Olson, as they formulated and presented their arguments.  There are glimpses of the pro-Prop. 8 folks, and I’d like to have heard more from them and their reasoning (perhaps that’s the journalist in me, or do I just want to see their bigotry and foolishness and, in some cases, breathtakingly changed minds exposed?), but, as he explained, that’s not the film that Mr. Cotner and his co-director set out to make. 
  There is incredible change seen in this documentary, just as it is.  Yes, there are those lawyers and their remarkable pairing, with Mr.  Boise and Mr.  Olson having famously been on the opposing sides in the Gore vs. Bush case in Florida which determined the outcome of the 2000 election.  Olson is a staunch conservative who, as seen in the film, was pilloried for arguing against a same-sex marriage ban. 
   It is a real change – remarkable – that a conservative lawyer would stand and argue for the right of a gay couple or a lesbian couple to marry.  It is a real change that getting married is more than some  wild-eyed vision in some  progressive corner of the gay community.  What is more remarkable, even more of a change, is that, far from being seriously debated in society, much less the courts, the idea of two men or two women getting married didn’t exist or maybe was a joke when I was growing up.  It was frankly unthinkable.
   But I saw an even bigger, more remarkable change as I watched the documentary.  I couldn’t help thinking that, as fascinating as it is as a document, that the film is out of date.  It is history.  Proposition 8 and the case against it is, as my nephew would say, so yesterday.  It is all but quaint. After all, as the result of court rulings and other moves in the past 10 months since the film was completed, same-sex marriage is now legal is 37 of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and is federally recognized, and it is widely thought that the U.S Supreme Court will make it legal nation-wide by the end of June, in two months. 
   That’s some real change – even more, I’d venture to say, than Mr. Cotner, who mentioned having a husband, planned on – or dreamed of? – showing.  Indeed, everyone with anything to say has commented that the change in attitude regarding gay people in general and same-sex marriage in particular over the last ten or twenty years has been breathtaking. 
   It is easy to that we are far away from all this change in Claremont.  It is easy in this tree-lined small town to not see the shootings and angry protests, the beheadings and drone strikes, the people without homes and the unspeakable disasters.  It is easy here to think that is all another world.
   But it’s not, and we’re not so far away.  For one thing, we all have neighbors who are gay men and lesbians, some of whom are raising families.  Claremont has paid same-sex benefits for some years. 
   And the end of another school year – yes, already! – is another reminder that Claremont isn’t so far away from all that is going on changing  in the world.  As with Ben Cotner coming back to his class room at Pitzer College and showing his important, remarkable film, the colleges brings the world to Claremont.  Look at all the leaders and experts who come to the colleges to speak, and, of course, there is all the learning that takes place here to prepare the graduates going out into the world. 
   I also suspect that being at Pitzer and in Claremont played a part in making Mr.  Cotner someone who speaks up and makes compelling films.  Who knows how many people Claremont has changed in this way, but, surely, not only does the world come to Claremont, Claremont goes out into the world.