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High School Musical Theatre History Lesson Plan 

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Next week, we are starting our unit on musical theatre in the 1950s. Here is the first 90 minute lesson plan to start an 8 day unit. (Yikes! Short!) If this is of use to another teacher, GREAT. I’m posting it for a more selfish reason… I’m on spring break and things start to get really busy for me this weekend so I need to plan out the entire week of 3/27-4/3. And I don’t feel like lesson planning… so I’m “blogging” right now… but really I’m lesson planning. These are really instructions to myself. Enjoy, I guess?

As students are walking in, instruct them to get a chromebook and a packet.

Project the following words on the board. As students are getting pencil and paper out, read the instructions verbally and allow students to write (7 minutes)

  • Today we begin our unit on the 1950s!
  • You will have the opportunity to preview 5 1950s scripts and choose the one you want to read.
  • To decide which script you want to read, you will research 10 images associated with each musical.
  • To start, please think of a favorite movie, novel, musical, or play. Write down 10 images or objects that you associate with it.

Call on 2-3 students to share out what they wrote (I use Popsicle sticks) and project the following instructions, reviewing them verbally (8 min — 15 total)

  • You will read one 1950s script in a small group (literature circle). Your choice of script is:
  • Guys and Dolls (1950)
  • The King and I (1951) 
  • My Fair Lady (1956)
  • West Side Story (1957)
  • Gypsy (1959) 
  • Today you will have 12 minutes to spend with a folder of 10 images from each script. For as many images as possible, you will research the connection between the image and the musical and write your findings down in your packet.
  • Then, at the end of class, you will rank your preference of script from 1-5 and decide what role you would prefer to have in your group.
  • Assign groups of four and a starting script for each group
  • You will know it is time to move to a different script/folder when the musical theatre show tunes stop.
  • Divide up the images between the four members of your group so as a group, you can cover them all.
  • Questions?

Students rotate through the different folders and images and complete their packet. (60 minutes — 75 minutes total)

Bring students to attention. Guide students through the packet and have them rank their script and lit circle role (12 minutes — 87 total)

Put chromebooks back and return folders with images (3 min — 90 total)

Packet Page 1:

Guys and Dolls (1950)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to Guys and Dolls? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Dice
  2. Sneeze
  3. Bible
  4. Boa
  5. New York
  6. Map of Cuba
  7. Engagement ring
  8. Frank Sinatra
  9. Mission Band
  10. Boat

Packet Page 2:

The King and I (1951)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to The King and I? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Whistle
  2. Chalkboard
  3. Buddha
  4. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  5. Anna
  6. King of Siam
  7. King’s Wives
  8. March of the Siamese Children
  9. Rogers and Hammerstein
  10. Cupid

Packet Page 3:

My Fair Lady (1956)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to My Fair Lady? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Pygmalion
  2. Chocolates
  3. Gramophone
  4. Flask
  5. Flowers
  6. Ascot Gavotte
  7. Rain in Barcelona
  8. London early 1900s
  9. Embassy Ball Scene
  10. Freddy

Packet Page 4:

West Side Story (1957)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to West Side Story? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Puerto Rican flag
  2. New York City late 1950s
  3. Knife
  4. Gun
  5. Romeo and Juliet
  6. The Jets
  7. The Sharks
  8. Jerome Robbins
  9. Leonard Bernstein
  10. “There’s a Place for Us”

Packet Page 5:

Gypsy (1959)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to Gypsy? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Ethel Merman
  2. a rose
  3. boa
  4. Stage Mom
  5. Rose and Herbie
  6. vaudeville
  7. Louise and June
  8. a star
  9. Bernadette Peters
  10. Stephen Sondheim

Packet Page 6:

Based on your brief research today, please rank the script that you are most interested in reading for the 1950s unit. To do this, write the names of the shows in order of “most want to read” to “least want to read” on the back of this page.

Once again, the shows are:

  • Guys and Dolls (1950)
  • The King and I (1951) 
  • My Fair Lady (1956)
  • West Side Story (1957)
  • Gypsy (1959) 

You will play a specific role in your reading group. You may be a:

  • Researcher (of production team, source material, production processes…)
  • Summarizer (of plot, themes, characters…)
  • Illustrator (of scenes, choreography, sets…)

Please write the names of the roles in order of “most want to do” to “least want to do” on the back of this page underneath your script ranking.

 

 

Strong and Wrong

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When novice, fourteen-year-old ballet dancers at the high school where I used to teach struck a pose both confidently and incorrectly, the dance department head used to praise them in faculty meetings for being “strong and wrong!”

That’s the phrase that came to mind when I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday night, about a wealthy music lover whose passion for singing and classical music was so strong that it blinded her to her own comically imperfect technique.

In contrast, her husband, played by Hugh Grant, has come to terms with the mediocrity of his acting career, but seems to find redemption in perpetuating Jenkin’s dream of herself, literally trashing bad reviews, screening Jenkin’s concert goers and bribing potential critics to ensure that Jenkins sees herself as a true member of the 1940s New York City music elite.

Streep’s performance was predictably on point, and Hugh Grant played the dapper gentleman convincingly, but the real stars of this movie, in my opinion, are Mr. McMoon, Ms. Jenkin’s diminutive, timid accompanist, played by Simon Helberg, and the costume designer, Consolata Boyle. Both McMoon, with his quivering, fluctuating facial expressions, and Boyle, with her quivering star tiaras that jostle in time to Jenkin’s operatic “hah ah has” and nude mesh stomach overlays that display Jenkin’s sizeable midrift, play up the physical comedy that makes this movie so enjoyable.

And yet, as I laughed through it, it struck a deeper chord: how refreshing it is, when some of the most technically astute dancers starve themselves, and many of the writers the public admires end their lives in suicide, when the phrase “tortured artist” is a cliché we take for granted, and when some of my most talented creative writing students warn me at the beginning of the semester that they are perfectionists, that we sometimes need a laugh-out-loud display of really bad art, delivered with great joy, to remind us that good art, while fundamentally challenging, finicky, and demanding, is about joy, too.

When I think about my own singing journey, it amuses me to observe that the work of most of my voice lessons was learning how to relax my throat. Thinking down when you ascend the scale, yawning exercises, and the like — when I practiced them regularly enough, my range went from 2nd suprano to 1st. A pleasant surprise, the notes I could hit, by simply keeping my throat open.

I suppose that this effort — relaxing into the moment, staying open, to joy, among other things — as much as refining technique, is the challenging work of a singer, or any artist. In that sense, Florence Jenkins truly hit a high note. No joke.

Making Plans

I’ve been making a lot of plans lately. Lesson plans, life plans. Today I’m taking a step back, using poetry to muse about control, spirituality, and the inspiration of the natural world, with a few shots of my Iceland vacation thrown in.

Making Plans

Remember in July,
when we stood still in our hiking boots,
waiting for the geyser to gush?

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Even that was a plan you made
and clothes I carefully laid
and bills we carefully paid
so we could dig our heels in the brown ground,
say “Wow”
When the earth flaunted its do-as-it-likes

Carefully stepping around wet stones and
“hugging the mountain” when the altitude felt too high

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We breathed in Earth’s overflow
witnessed Her grace

But over a Gull, or lobster soup,
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we mused over plans for home,
or lunch,
stealthily strategizing.

Meanwhile, glowing chunks of blue-white ice floated idly toward the Atlantic
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Aggressive waterfalls thundered down cliffs
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the gray Atlantic met with pebbled beaches
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And we took pictures, eager to clap
For this jazz.

Then

Surrender came in a flash
when I stripped off my coat and scarf and laid in the moss-grass of a mountain
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suddenly remembering that memorial service photo of Carrie’s mom,
basking in the sky on Colorado grass
Before ALS hit.

Today I wonder if I’m a fool
to think that the plans I’m making
bear a contrast, rather than a pale resemblance to
the sprinkling of volcanic ash on a glacier
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Perhaps I’ve been duped
by the strangeness of ash on ice
the drama of cascading water
the glow of blue lagoons

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Yes, I think I’ve been duped.
I’m “a theatre person”; I should understand
the planning that goes into the artifice.

“Whipped cream on a brick,”
a dance teacher once said,
of a ballerina’s lithe posturing
to look like she does as she likes.

Still, it’s a nice thought,
And one that I think I’ll hold onto,
That when the geyser errupts,
She’s just letting it go,
on a whim.

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Hook, The Crucible

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This lesson is for the beginning of the second week of my school year. It’s the “hook” to get students interested in the play, The Crucible. (The first week of school will be spent building rapport, practicing policies and procedures, including this lesson on Growth vs. Fixed Mindset).  I introduced the book this way last year, and for the most part it was successful… except for one student whose phone I took away in the first couple days of school and who proceeded to write that I was her personal crucible. Yup, except for that 🙂 I’ve made a few tweaks to the order of things. If you’re interested in a copy of the PowerPoint I use, comment or contact me at gingerodonnell.com.  This lesson runs about 90 minutes.

 

  1. Students google the definition of the word, crucible. There are multiple definitions. They should write all of the definitions. (5 min)
  2. As a class, analyze the different definitions. How are they connected? How can we take these different, connected definitions and create a new definition in our own words? (5 min)
  3. Tell students that they will write a paragraph (or more) about a personal crucible they have experienced, or someone they are close to has experienced, based on the definition of crucible we have created. Model this first by reading your own (this activity continues to build rapport in the beginning of the year) — I am planning to write about my sister-in-law’s first few months on a remote Pacific island in the Peace Corps (also a convenient way to plant the Peace Corps seed in my students’ minds). (15 min)
  4. Students pair up with the person sitting next to them (all my classes have seating charts, alphabetical order in the beginning of the year) and share what they wrote. (7 min)
  5. Call on four partners to share out with the class what their partner wrote. In the beginning of the year, popsicle sticks come in handy to randomly select sharers, or you can take volunteers if students are eager to share. (10 min)
  6. Explain to students that there are really two crucibles taking place in the play, The Crucible: one that forms the action of the plot, and one that is subtext. Project the definition of subtext on the board and have students write it down: an underlying meaning in a literary or dramatic work, sub meaning under, text meaning text, in other words, the meaning you find when you read between the lines. 
  7. Define Crucible #1 in The Crucible: a bunch of teenage girls and older women are falsely accused of witchcraft and the justice system doesn’t protect them. 
  8. Explain to students that a mnemonic device helps you remember something. In this case, we’re using the song “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles to remember Crucible #1 that we just defined. Play the song and provide students with a copy of the lyrics, either on the projector or on a handout.

“Witchy Woman”
The Eagles 1970s

Raven hair and ruby lips
sparks fly from her finger tips
Echoed voices in the night
she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight
wooo hooo witchy woman, see how
high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman she got
the moon in her eye
She held me spellbound in the night
dancing shadows and firelight
crazy laughter in another
room and she drove herself to madness
with a silver spoon
woo hoo witchy woman see how high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman she got the moon in her eye
Well I know you want a lover,
let me tell your brother, she’s been sleeping
in the Devil’s bed.
And there’s some rumors going round
someone’s underground
she can rock you in the nighttime
’til your skin turns red
woo hoo witchy woman
see how high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman
she got the moon in her eye

9. Define Crucible #2 (Subtext): in the 1950s, there was a witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy to hunt down communists. Professors and leaders in higher education, Hollywood, theatre, radio, and television were especially targeted. In this situation, too, the justice system didn’t protect them. 

10. Play “Get That Communist Joe” to remember Crucible #2. (20 min)

“Get That Communist, Joe”
The Kavaliers 1954

Joe, come here a minute
I get a red hot tip for you, Joe

See that guy with the red suspenders
Driving that car with the bright red fenders
I know he’s one of those heavy spenders
Get that Communist Joe

He’s fillin’ my gal with propaganda
And I’m scared she will meander
Don’t want to take a chance that he’ll land her
Get that Communist Joe

He’s a most revolting character
And the fellas hate him so
But with the girls this character
Is a Comrade Romeo

Since my love he’s sabotaging
And the law he has been dodging
Give him what he deserves, jailhouse lodging
Get that Communist Joe (Get that Shmo, Joe)

11. Students take notes on 12 PowerPoint slides, expounding on four key points (30 min)

  • Puritanism
  • Witchcraft
  • McCarthyism
  • Arthur Miller

12. HW: Read “The Great Fear” by J. Ronald Oakley (about 20 pages), a “related reading” from The Crucible and Related Readings; provide students with a bookmark defining target vocabulary words as they read and inform them that there will be a brief 5 question reading quiz next class

Final Project, The Crucible

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I am reworking the final project for The Crucible. Last year I had my students write a monologue loosely based on one of the characters but they weren’t as interested in writing, much less performing, monologues as I had anticipated. I also like that this project is a bit more rigorous, requiring more writing, research, and MLA formatting. The idea came to me when reading the “related readings” in this version of The Crucible, specifically the essay “Guilt” by Clifford Lindsey Alderman. Most of all, I hope that the choices embedded in the research portion give my students an opportunity to explore issues of social justice that they are passionate about. I know The Crucible is a widely taught text in American high schools, so maybe this assignment idea will serve as “food for thought” for fellow educators.

  • Goal: Respond to the question, How do individuals and societies recover and rebuild following major injustices?
  • Role: Freelance contributor to a magazine.
  • Audience: Peers in American Lit I class via Socratic seminar; possibly wider members of school community if paper highlights can be shared on class website.
  • Situation: An opportunity to connect history to contemporary society, educating readers about the aftermath of the Salem witch trials and connecting this to the aftermath of current injustices across America and the globe.
  • Product: A 5 page paper (see details below).

Required Components of Paper

  1. Summarize how different members of the Salem community coped with their guilt once the witch trials were widely believed to be a grave injustice, as explained in the essay, “Guilt,” by Clifford Lindsey Alderman, contained in The Crucible and Related Readings
  2. Choose a major injustice in contemporary society specifically where innocents have died at the hands of an individual, a government, or some other organization:

The death penalty executed against an innocent person
Instances of police brutality or civilian assaults against police
Residents of the Middle East who have been killed by US drone attacks
Victims of terrorist attacks
Victims of violence during the Arab Spring
Residents of Syria dying at the hands of the Assad regime
The list goes on…

3. Research and report, how did different members of the local, national, and global, and virtual (internet) community respond in the aftermath of these unjust deaths?

4. Argue, in what ways was the local, national, global, or virtual (internet) response effective? In what ways was it ineffective?

5. Argue, what specific action needs to be taken to recover from these unjust deaths at at an individual level? A local level? A virtual (internet) level? A national level? A global level? (Some of these “levels” may overlap)

6. Cite your sources in MLA format, both in-text citations and a Works Cited page

RUBRIC: _____/120
(Each of 6 categories worth up to 20 points)

  Ideas Organization Conventions Word Choice Sentence Fluency Voice
Advanced ___ Strong controlling idea based on interesting and meaningful exploration of essential question

___ Clearly addresses topic and provides specific and relevant concrete details and/or reasons

___ Shows complexity and freshness of thought

___ Effective, insightful commentary connects concrete detail to essential question

___ Effective beginning, middle, and end; engaging introduction; strong sense of closure

___ A clear, strong guiding question governs entire essay; the writer skillfully emphasizes important ideas

___ Use paragraphing effectively

___ Progresses in a logical order

___ Uses effective cohesive devices (transitions, repetition, pronouns, parallel structure) between and within paragraphs

 

___ Successfully follows assigned format

___ Contains few errors in grammar/usage, punctuation, capitalization, and/or spelling

___ Intentional or clever use of atypical sentence structure

___ Correct pronoun/antecedent agreement and subject/verb agreement; consistent verb tense

___Correct MLA format in nearly all aspects

___ Uses precise and vivid language

___ Effective use of writing techniques such as imagery and figurative language if appropriate

___ Consistently avoids redundancy

___ Contains sentences that are clear and varied in length and structure

___ Variety of sentence beginnings

___ Natural rhythm, cadence, and flow

___ Shows individual perspective; personality comes through

___ Clearly shows an awareness of audience and purpose

___ Writer’s enthusiasm for the topic is evident

___ Effectively uses writing techniques (such as humor, point of view, tone) that evoke a strong emotional response

Proficient ___ Controlling idea based on a meaningful exploration of essential question begins to narrow focus

___ Addresses the topic using relevant details and/or reasons

___ Shows some complexity and/or freshness of thought

___ Strong commentary relates concrete detail to essential question

___ Clear beginning, middle, and end with an effective introduction and conclusion

___ A clear guiding question governs the entire essay; important ideas stand out

___ Uses paragraphing appropriately

___ Generally progresses in a logical order

___ Uses cohesive devices between and within paragraphs

 

___ Accurately follows assigned format

___ May contain errors in grammar/usage, punctuation, capitalization, and/or spelling that are not distracting to the reader

___ Fragment or run-ons are rare (unless stylistic)

___ Very few errors in agreement and tense

___Correct MLA format in a large majority of aspects

___ Uses precise language

___ Uses writing techniques such as imagery and/or figurative language is appropriate

___ Avoids redundancy

___ Contains sentences that are clear and show some variety in length and structure

___ Not all sentences begin with the same pattern

___ Sections of writing have rhythm and flow

___ Shows some individual perspective; personality begins to show

___ Shows an awareness of audience and purpose

___ Writer cares about topic

___ Uses writing techniques (such as humor, point of view, tone) that may evoke an emotional response

Developing ___ Contains some sense of direction, but may lack focus

___ Addresses the topic, but relies on generalities (lists) rather than specifics

___ Limited complexity and/or freshness of thought

___ Weak commentary

___ Evidence of a beginning, middle, and end

___ Guiding question may be addressed, but may not govern the entire essay; some important ideas begin to surface

___ Shows evidence of paragraphing

___ Inconsistency in logical order

___ Inconsistent use of cohesive devices

___ Attempts assigned format

___ Contains errors in grammar/usage, punctuation, capitalization, and/or spelling that may be distracting to the reader

___ Some run-ons and/or sentence fragments

___ Inconsistent subject/verb agreement and/or verb tense

___ Inconsistent compliance with MLA format rules

___ May use imprecise language

___ Attempts to use some writing techniques such as imagery and/or figurative language if appropriate

___ Some obvious redundancy

___ Contains sentences that are generally clear, but lack variety and complexity

___ Some sentences begin the same

___ An occasional section of writing has rhythm and flow

___ May lack individual perspective

___ Shows some awareness of audience and purpose

___ Writer shows limited connection to the topic

___ Attempts to use some writing techniques (humor, point of view, tone) to evoke a response

Emerging ___ Is difficult to follow and lacks focus

___ May address the topic, but lacks details

___ Lacks complexity and freshness of thought

___ Attempts commentary successfully

___ Little or no evidence of a beginning, middle, and/or end

___ Guiding question unclear

___ Little or no evidence of paragraphing

___ Does not progress in a logical order and may digress to unrelated topics

___ Lacks cohesion

 

___ No evidence of format

___ Contains repeated errors in grammar/usage, punctuation, capitalization, and or spelling that are distracting to the reader

___ Numerous run-ons and/or fragments

___ Frequent errors with agreement and/or tense

___ Frequent errors with MLA format

___ Uses imprecise language

___ Shows little or no evidence of writing techniques such as imagery of figurative language

___ Obvious and/or distracting redundancy

___ Contains sentences that lack variety and clarity

___ Most sentences begin the same way

___ Writing is choppy; needs rereading to follow the meaning

___ Lacks individual perspective

___ Shows little or no awareness of audience or purpose

___ Treatment of topic is predictable

___ Shows little or no evidence of writing techniques to evoke a response

No Evidence          

 

 

Chapter One, Willpower

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0Picture a group of twenty year-olds scattered around a dance studio, facing each other in pairs, leaning forward on their toes, noses touching. This was the first day of a Performance Studies class I took — for one day, before dropping it — called “Performance and the Body,” or something to that effect. Our introduction to the weekly, four-hour class was to stand as close to our partner for as long as we could, as still as we could. Afterward we debriefed on the challenges of this task, and many of us remarked that it was really difficult not to lob their partner with a big kiss. Nobody yielded to the temptation — one of my stranger feats of willpower.

As mentioned last week, I’m in the middle of reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, part history, part psychological study, part self-improvement book. Chapter one begins with a discussion of pop singer Amanda Palmer, a Dionysian, Lady Gaga type who doesn’t exactly conjure the traditionally straight-laced, Victorian idea of “willpower,” and yet, as the authors are wise to point out, who possesses it in abundant supply. She first honed her powers of will by standing stock still on top of a box, dressed as a bride in the middle of Harvard Square. She could manage it for about 90 minutes at a time, not being able “to scratch if she had an itch, wipe her nose if a piece of snot started to dribble down, swat at a stray mosquito…” She was doing nothing, but the discipline of being totally blank-faced and nonreactive was itself a challenge. Reminds me of how my old drama teacher used to yell, “F— YOU!” at us, as in, “focus you.”

Actually, there are four categories of willpower, according to this book:

  • Control of thoughts — this is accomplished by focusing
  • Control of emotions — this is accomplished through “indirect strategies,” such as distracting yourself when you feel negative emotions
  • Impulse control — really a description of how people react to stray impulses
  • Performance control — the ability to complete a task with the appropriate mix of speed, accuracy, perseverance

In chapter one, the authors also suggest that willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued after use. Apparently we use the same supply of willpower for all tasks: making decisions, writing a term paper, resisting chocolate chip cookies, waking up on time… Author Roy Baumeister coined a term for willpower fatigue, called “ego depletion.” It draws upon Freud’s energy model of the self, the idea that the self is comprised of various, competing energies that must be productively channeled. University of Toronto researchers Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer Gutsell found that ego depletion manifests as slower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and also in more extreme emotions — so next time your plagued by violent mood swings, ask yourself how much self-discipline you’ve had to exercise recently.

An amusing study conducted by two Australian psychologists proved the forcefulness of the ego depletion concept. In the study, they administered self-control tests to students at several points throughout the semester. During exams, the students smoked more, doubled their caffeine intake, spent money more impulsively, and generally took on a host of bad habits. Turns out that stress erodes willpower, which explains the students’ poor behavior.

In another study, scientists put hungry subjects in a room with warm chocolate chip cookies, radishes, and chocolate candy. Some were told to eat the cookies and the candy; a separate group was told to eat the radishes. Then they were instructed to work on insoluble puzzles. Those who ate the sweets worked on the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes, whereas the radish-eating participants only persevered for about eight minutes. Their willpower had presumably been depleted by the effort of resisting the cookies. To summarize,

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it [and] you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”

What’s the take away? Focus on accomplishing, changing, or mastering one thing at a time. And be patient with yourself, whatever the challenge 🙂

Farewell Chicago

brunurb P1090489 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I have seven more nights to sleep in my Chicago bed. Seven more 5:30 am snoozes filled in by the sound of dump trucks reversing, ambulances speeding, cabbies honking, and heels clicking on pavement outside my bedroom window. Am I feeling nostalgic? Not so much, as a matter of fact. I’ve reached a point where the allure of the city, in all its gritty, gray, urban glory, has faded for me. I’m ready for a shorter commute. I’m ready for bigger patches of green grass, for big, old trees that aren’t plopped in the middle of a concrete sidewalk with a copper plate covering for protection. I’m ready for pizza that isn’t Chicago style pizza — and yes, that especially includes Imo’s, even if it does resemble “Velveeta on a cracker.” I’m ready for snow that melts, rather than transforming into a coal-black packed powder for weeks on end. I’m ready for longer springs, longer autumns, shorter, warmer winters.

Did I mention that I’m ready? At the same time, I’m already anticipating that moment when the absence of all that Chicago has to offer suddenly tugs at me, when suddenly I’m aware that I’ve given up a great deal and I can’t go back to it. I know it’s coming. So here’s a little list of Chi town places I’ll especially miss, hopefully with some appeal for both readers well-acquainted and completely unfamiliar with the windy city:

The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of my favorite places to see live music in Chicago. In addition to offering a wide range of classes in a wide range of instruments for both kids and adults, Old Town hosts so many great concerts. This March I saw Los San Patricios, a concert about Irish immigrants’ contributions to the Mexican-American war, jointly produced by the Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago and featuring a fusion of Mexican and Irish music and dance. Another favorite was a performance a few years ago by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, performing songs from their joint album, Kin.

Joseph Kranak Signature Room CC BY 2.0LSD, as in Lakeshore Drive, is such a gem. The glint of sun on the corner of skyscrapers. Wide swaths of lake, stretching toward the horizon. Belmont Harbor, with its promise of leisurely summer days spent out on the water. An open view of Buckingham Fountain, whose spray hits the sky just so, making a rainbow. Joggers and bikers cutting their path, making the city feel lived in, alive. Warm days when the beaches are loaded with people. Cool days when the sand is iced over, windswept into craggy piles. Gray, dry  days when the city is a blend of blue, silver, and white.

Andrew Seaman Davis Theater CC BY-ND 2.0The Davis Theater, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, is almost 100 years old, with a definite old-timey feel, established by antique posters, retro vending equipment, and four theaters displaying high, smallish screens and dingy, threadbare seats that you can’t help but love. It’s a refreshing respite from the brightly lit, commercial complexes where movies are more frequently shown today. Perhaps it’s most admirable feature, though, is the name — speaking as one, it’s hard not to love a “Davis” 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.31 AMSpeaking of Davis’s, I will sorely miss Davis Street Fish Market, purporting on their website to be “Chicago’s #1 Seafood Destination.” I have a long history with this place. I recall eating there with my parents on a college visit to Northwestern, and celebrating my graduation there a few years later. These days my husband and I like to journey over to Evanston on a Friday night for some “Crescent City Cioppino,” replete with scallops, crawfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, tomato, and fennel, or maybe some Jambalaya. Well, we used to. I suppose I’ll need a new seafood spot in the Lou.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.58.32 AMI’m not a big shopper, but I have some great memories of sorting through Knee Deep Vintage‘s collection of dresses, t-shirts, bags, and shoes. Open since 2008, the shop is located on 18th Street, in Pilsen, on Chicago’s south side. I bought an army green dress with a gold print, 1950s-style, with a cinched waist, stiff collar and 3-quarter cuffed sleeves, and pleated flare skirt that I was intent on sporting for Halloween, Mad Men style, but it’s just been hanging in my closet for the last five years. I finally donated it the other day. Still, it was a rare find, and I’m glad I went knee deep for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.12.52 PMDak is a Korean barbecue joint near my house whose praises I also sung on the site Food Riot. A clean, spare, small space with blonde wooden tables, gray floors, and plentiful spools of paper towels, Dak is good for two versions of wings: one with a soy/garlic/ginger sauce, and a spicy red pepper version. Rice bowls are also on the menu, containing veggies, a fried egg, and a sweet/spicy red pepper sauce, but my favorite is their Bulgogi — thinly sliced steak lightly dredged in Korean barbecue sauce served alongside a sticky mound of white rice. They also make a mean eggroll and a tasty batch of sweet potato waffle fries that are hard to resist.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.06.01 PMSpeaking of neighborhood haunts, it’ll be hard to part with Devon Market. The Edgewater grocery store has fresh bread baked in store, a large produce section, a wide assortment of Mexican style meats, international pantry items, and is such a bargain compared to the bigger chains.

Patrick Emerson Follow Harold Washington Library Patrick Emerson CC BY-ND 2.0How I’ll miss the Harold Washington Library, and the entire Chicago Public Library system. The sheer size and vibrancy of Chicago’s libraries, housed in so many beautiful and historic locations, is something to be savored. (I think Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square is a close second for me.) And for a bit of trivia, did you know that the city’s public library system was set into motion after the Great Chicago Fire, when 8,000 books were donated from England? Now you do 🙂

Rachel 365/28 Lao Sze Chuan CC BY-NC 2.0

Lao Sze Chuan is, hands down, my favorite place to eat Chinese food in the city. They have a delectable eggplant pork dish that’s soft and buttery and decadent, a mayonnaise shrimp item that sounds disgusting but is strangely addictive, delicious crispy beef dishes, irresistible steamed dumplings, and warm pots of fresh tea. That said, their menu is extensive, and in all my times eating there, I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Don’t take my word for it — this place has received numerous awards from the city’s culinary community. It’s a fairly widespread favorite.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.11.39 PMAnd… last, but certainly not least, I will miss Links Hall, a performance space for independent artists — a place to take risks, generate new work, and expose Chicago audiences to new horizons. With all its artistic offerings, I doubt Saint Louis has a place quite like it. Aw shucks.

So there you go. As I prepare to journey southward, I remember that Chicago is a loaded, special place, full of places and people and meals to be missed. What’s your favorite Chicago gem??

 

 

Pushing the Bard in House of Cards

Brian Rinker House of Cards CC BY 2.0I resurface today after too long of break from this site! My excuse is that I’ve been busy with all the details of moving. But I admit, I also have a little fessing up to do, because there’s a far less upstanding reason for my hiatus. It’s called Season 3 of House of Cards.

I was initially reminded to watch when I came across an article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Orr, called “Why the British Are Better at Satire.” Orr contrasts the American show with its BBC predecessor from 1990, in addition to critiquing Veep and its British counterpart, The Thick of It, as well as lamenting the general lack of satire on American TV, despite quite a few shows wheeling and dealing in Washington intrigue. From Orr’s vantage point, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the closest we have to British satire, with their quick-witted, unrelenting, barbed sensibility.

In opposition to Jon Stewart’s fast-paced repartée, the American House of Cards is notably “declawed,” according to Orr. It amounts to melodrama, the stuff of soap operas, a “sleek, intriguing portrait in menace” versus the “jaunty” British version. Wile both American and British versions share the same, basic narrative arc — a politically mired “Francis” who is denied a much anticipated promotion, then sets out on a vengeful, transparent quest for power — Orr outlines vast differences in tone and style. For starters, the cast of the main character: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is an ambitious conservative Democrat whose Machiavellian scheming reads as ridiculous and absurd when compared to Ian Richard’s Francis Urquhart, a “winking, bred-in-the-bone conservative.” According to Orr, the Lady Macbeth vibes of Francis’s wife are also toned down and muddled in the American version, and his chief of staff Doug Stamper is caught up in the stuff of soap operas (alcoholism, unrequited love…) Lastly, Orr points out that Frank Underwood is one corrupt Washington official among many, whereas Francis Urquhart is a “genuine villain,” the “one dishonest man” who upsets the hapless political framework surrounding him.

Diving into one episode and then the next, I can’t shake Orr’s critique. The American series’ melodramatic tone is addictive and alluring (hence, my recent binge) but it does ring hollow at times, striking me as a little bit off, incomplete. And then I wonder — does the melodramatic style necessarily cheapen the show, or does the American version simply strive to create a more stylized, self-contained, Shakespearean world set in modern-day Washington? In a 2013 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Kevin Spacey talks about playing Richard III as preparation for Frank Underwood. Orr characterizes Spacey’s asides to the camera as “ridiculous,” but so are the antics of Shakespeare’s ruthless king — you could argue that Spacey is playing Frank with a similar sort of gravity and bravado that he brought to the stage as Richard. These overt references to Shakespeare, and the straightforward styling of Frank as an old-fashioned, ruthless evildoer, seem to be part of the American show’s allure. There’s even a scene in season three where Underwood is addressing the camera through his own blurry, distorted reflection in a White House window, a nod to Richard III’s hunched, deformed physicality. There are plenty of moments where Underwood drives home the despicable, tyrannical nature of his character with a straight edge — the opposite of a “winking” demeanor — not least of which when he visits his father’s grave and pees on it just outside the sight lines of the press. While Kevin Spacey’s theatrical flair for his character’s malice is somewhat fascinating to watch, I have to agree with Orr that viewers of Francis Urquhart probably enjoy his character more, because there’s so much more to mine with the weird mix of light and dark that defines satire. By the end of season three, Frank Underwood and his much emphasized, increasingly frequent asides become something of a deadbeat, all too familiar.

Maybe the caricature aspect of Frank Underwood is why Season 3 keeps turning to his wife, Claire. Orr is right that Claire is too complex to be a Lady Macbeth type, though she nods in that direction at times. Take her sleek, angular wardrobe, omnipresent stilettos, and icy blonde highlights — an image that projects the severity and singularity of her ambitions, especially when coupled with that squinty, loaded gaze, the object of many a close up. There’s the moment when a dejected Francis calls Claire for solace and she tells him she “can’t indulge him” if he’s doubting himself, and plenty of other moments in between when Claire’s relentless pragmatism reads as ruthless, as if she never shifts her gaze from their marathon climb to the top. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that Claire is not at the helm of her husband’s quest for power. Instead, she clings to their political partnership increasingly out of desperation, not because she doesn’t long for power and status, which she does, but more fundamentally because she doesn’t love her husband. Her commitment to Frank’s scheming is more about a dogged persistence to preserve their union in some form, and of course, because she’s already in so deep, implicated in her husband’s trail of evildoings. In my opinion, watching Claire evolve into an increasingly self-honest, vulnerable character is one of the most satisfying parts of season three, but it does reinforce the feeling that the American House of Cards is softer around the edges, and ultimately apolitical.

I think the most salient effect of side-stepping satire for a more menacing, melodramatic political portrait is that House of Cards completely dodges any meaningful relationship to the real-life theatre of American politics. Instead we get a stylized, operatic, self-contained and unmistakably fictional world to peer into for some good old-fashioned intrigue. The lack of a political critique is why everything feels so stylized — the Shakespearean overtures don’t push us to think critically about our own political climate, they just plunge us further into a strange, dark world with a little extra flourish. It’s simply a difference of approach, but with the recent outcry over John Stewart’s leaving The Daily Show, it seems that Americans audiences are hungry for a more pointed social critique instead of these heavy, angst-ridden worlds that ultimately function as an escape from our own.

Into the Woods

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.27.05 AMOver the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.

Mother/Daughter Angst

How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”

It Only Takes a Moment

Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.

Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.

“Rumi: Love, Madness & Ecstasy”

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.16.20 PM“There is an animal called an ushghur, a porcupine
If you hit it with a stick, it extends its quills and gets bigger.
The soul is a porcupine,
made strong by stick-beating.”

This past weekend I saw “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy,” a staged reading written by Sheri Winkelmann and directed by Helen Young, presented by Silk Road Rising Theatre. Based on the playwright’s own experience with domestic violence, the play follows the character, Sadia, an independent, open young woman who unexpectedly falls in love with a Tibetan doctor while volunteering in India. Setting aside her practical, modern sensibilities, she agrees to marry Dorjee when he moves his practice to the U.S. After a brief honeymoon period, Dorjee reveals a disturbing jealous streak and a capacity for sudden mood swings. Meanwhile, Sadia does her best to believe in him, attributing his split personality to culture shock while experiencing her own version in the form of isolation from her single, female friends and growing discomfort inside her own home. When the violence reaches a breaking point, the poetry of the famous Persian writer and Sufi mystic, Rumi gives Sadia the courage and spiritual clarity to get out.

The language of Rumi is woven into the play from the beginning — from Sadia’s initial, exuberant feelings toward Dorjee to her eventual escape. It’s a form of punctuation, sometimes initiatied by “Old Sadia,” a sort of spiritually evolved, omniscient narrator version of young Sadia, played by Amira Sabbagh, sometimes chanted by the ensemble as a form of transition music between scenes. It infuses the script with a strong musical energy, a palpable beat that brings Sadia’s spiritual journey to life while illustrating the essential nature of all human suffering, whatever the context. Lines from the poem, “Checkmate” like

“The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody and gross.
Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief,
and you’ll become lovely, and very strong.”

and

“Those that make you return, for whatever reason, to God’s solitude, be grateful to them.
Worry about the others, who give you
delicious comforts that keep you from prayer.
Friends are enemies sometimes,
and enemies friends.”

are especially memorable, chanted near the end when Sadia attempts to reconcile her circumstances with her belief in God, and somehow make sense of her suffering.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 7.55.36 AMI also appreciated the play’s attention to what are, perhaps, more puzzling, ambiguous factors in a domestic abuse situation, such as Sadia’s status as a highly educated, independent minded woman who made a bad judgment call. There is a striking line when Sadia says, “Everything in my culture tells me I should blame myself, but I won’t.” It had me wondering, is this where her education comes into play? If education and financial independence don’t necessarily insulate women from situations of domestic abuse, do they allow women to recover with their psyches more intact, with a greater degree of emotional clarity? This question was addressed during the post-show discussion when Ms. Winkelmann commented on the heightened secrecy surrounding affluent, educated women in abusive relationships, noting an increase in the number of personal acquaintances who have recently shared their stories with her. As for the redemptive power of education, the seed for this project was the playwright’s attraction to a book of Rumi poems in a Barnes and Noble, so her story certainly speaks to the way in which reading and writing allow us to explore and expose our own seemingly shameful experiences and pay them forward, facilitating the healing of others.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 7.22.13 AMAnother aspect that Ms. Winkelmann’s script exposes in detail is the intense, predictable pattern of the abuse itself. There are several scenes in which we feel a tide turning, the couple slipping down a familiar rabbit hole of escalating insecurity and increasingly inadequate responses until the fight blows over. Then it happens again, like clockwork. This is powerful, if painful, to watch, exposing the cyclical patterns without trying to explain them. I can only imagine that survivors of abuse would find it somehow validating, as if to say, this is what it is, this is what it looks like, over and over again — and despite the insanity, it is real, recognizable, and not the victim’s fault.

A third and final point of discussion is the depiction of Sadia’s friends, and the role they play in perpetuating her feelings of shame and alienation. This tension is introduced early on, beginning with their skepticism toward Sadia’s decision to get married, as if acting boldly based on faith is an inherently sketchy choice to make. As the marriage deteriorates, they are gradually turned off by Sadia’s resolve to make it work, and eventually disassociate themselves. Are they horrible friends, or just limited ones? If they hadn’t deserted their friend in the middle of her desperation, forcing her to “return to God’s solitude,” would she have eventually decided to leave? What is the role of women in perpetuating a culture of shame? Can ordinary women help empower victims simply by withholding judgment?

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.22.32 PMIntense, serious questions, perhaps, but interesting and provocative ones, ones that can hardly be dismissed. And it’s not all serious — Sadia’s friends, played by Suzanne Sole and Michelle Weissgerber, provide frequent, welcome comic relief, and the Rumi lines are like little gems, sparkling turns of phrase — they get lodged in your brain, resurfacing for a while after. “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy” gives us a different, deeper, more profound kind of love to think about for Valentine’s Day: one the one hand, the people or experiences that break us, transforming us into something better and wiser; and on the other hand, the “beloved,” or God, who pulls us through everything, far better stated in the first stanza of “Checkmate”:

“Borrow the beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see the beloved’s face
everywhere. No tiredness, no jaded boredom.
‘I shall be your eye and your hand and your loving.
Let that happen, and things
you have hated will become helpers.”

[Photo credits: “The Heart,” petalouda62’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “The Reed Flute Sings in Silence,” deborahaddington.com, “Molana.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, “Which Sheds Its Rays Upon a Frozen Heart,” Poetry, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

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