Sunday, October 4, 2015

Mark Watney, "The Martian," Inspires Home-Repair Heroics

Obsolete technology
The mission: Remove 1980 semi-recessed lighting fixture from bathroom ceiling, replace with bright, modern Pixi® brand TruFlat® LED.

The crisis: The old ceiling cut is 1.5 inches wider that the pre-drilled holes in the new Pixi® TruFlat® mounting plate.

The inspiration: Fortunately, I had just seen The Martian, in which an astronaut marooned on the red planet survives and inspires the entire world through ingenious re-purposing of abandoned equipment and a lot of duct tape.

So I asked myself: What would space hero and Martian MacGyver Mark Watney do? And then I thought it would be nice if Matt Damon plays me in my biopic, Scribbling in the Dark for 35 Years: A Critic's Heroic Life. I'm working on the screenplay.

The process: I retrieved the old mounting bracket from the recycling bin. A dozen mighty blows with a tack hammer and some vigorous bending removed all the once-necessary but now superfluous flanges. A plain 8.5" metal square, with a 1-inch lip at 90 degrees all around, remained. I inverted the square from its customary position and set it into the ceiling cutout. Perfect fit!

Obsolete bracket, adapted, inverted, re-purposed.
Working quickly against deadline pressure (I wanted this done before Lee Ann came home), I drove screws through the lip of the bracket into 1x2 lumber I'd cut to form a square around the hole and give the new fixture support on all four sides. Then I drilled four holes in the face of the bracket, to match the factory holes in the mounting plate for the Pixi® TruFlat® LED fixture.

The new lamp came with four toggle bolts. I placed the toggle nuts on top of the bracket, ran the bolts through the new mounting plate and the bracket into the nuts and tightened them up. Solid.

The most delicate and dangerous part of the operation was still to come: Holding the heavy fixture while connecting the ground, positive and negative lines. Gathering up all my Mark Watney ingenuity, skill, steely focus and good humor in the face of danger, I recited a couple of knock-knock jokes and made the connections. I slid the lamp over the mounting spurs and we have DOCKING!

Light. Cue the triumphant music.
But the suspense continued. As I pulled the old Romex toward the hole to have adequate wiring to work with, had I disturbed some 35-year-old connection? After all, this is a two-way switch. A lot can go wrong in the dark mystery of an overhead crawl space.

I flipped the breaker to re-supply desperately needed power to the bathroom circuit. I flipped the local power switch and... LIGHT!

I totally could have done this on Mars.
Matt Damon as Mark Watney, doing duct-tape home repair on Mars. By the way, do see "The Martian." Great movie.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Efficient Writing for Better Business Blogging

Strini at work on his first blog, in 1527.
Readers of this long-dormant blog know me as Milwaukee's fine arts critic. Most of you also know that we have moved to Oregon and started new lives in Corvallis. I plan to revive this old blog to reflect those new lives and this is my first post toward that end.

An ongoing business relationship with Northwoods Web Solutions, of Shorewood, Wis., is part of my new life. I've written and edited for that fine company for about 18 months. Turns out I'm a very good content marketing and business writer. Northwoods gave me permission to republish my latest piece for the company here. I'm sharing this one in particular because it applies to writing in general as much as to content marketing writing. In this little piece I sum up what I've learned 38 years as a professional writer. Bookmark it and consult it when you have to write something. I guarantee it will help.

Efficient Writing for Better Blogging

By Tom Strini for Northwoods Web Solutions
“Help! Marketing wants me to contribute to the company blog. I know everything about automated dweezil manufacturing and our leading role in the field. But I slept through freshman English. ”
Don’t panic. You can do this. You speak English. Writing is like speaking, but with time to fix mistakes. Keep in mind a few general principles and helpful hints, and you can become a decent writer.

General Strategies, Procedures and Principles

  1. Your overarching goal: Every user reads all the way to the end of every story.
  2. Don’t wait. Don’t outline. Just start writing, even – especially – if you’re not sure of exactly what you want to say. You write not merely to record what you already know; you write to discover and invent. Think of the page as a laboratory. Run thought experiments there.
  3. Write your first draft freely. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or even structure. That first draft might amount to little more than stray thoughts about your topic. You might jot it down on a legal pad rather than type it into your computer. See which thoughts ring true and sift them out for further study. They might point you toward more research or lead you in a different direction entirely, which can be a good thing.
  4. Let your completed first draft sit for an hour. Revisit it and consolidate far-flung blocks of copy on the same and related subjects. Arrange those consolidations in order of importance. This process will begin to structure your article and lead you to your thesis - that is, your most important idea.
  5. Well-structured writing accumulates meaning as sentence builds upon sentence and paragraph builds upon paragraph. This accumulation of meaning creates a sense of momentum and velocity in the reader’s mind. Perceived velocity, more than brevity in terms of word count, determines whether your readers find your story too long. Five-thousand-word articles can pass in a flash; 800-word articles can go on forever. Your story should run exactly as long as it must – and not one word longer.
  6. Be awake to the possibilities of the Internet. Its infinite space grants us not only the privilege of writing to ideal length, but also of linking to further information, adding video, graphics and photographs.

Tactics, Hints and Examples

  1. Write in active voice with action verbs. Consider these two sentences: (a) The bat hit the ball. (b) The ball was hit by the bat. Seven words in (b), the passive sentence, vs. five words (a). The dropped words, “by” and “the,” convey zero meaning. A mere two words, you say? Two/ seven=28%. Write a 1,000-word post that way and 280 of your words mean nothing.
  2. Paragraphs count in readability, perceived velocity, structure and rhythm. Long unbroken blocks of text confuse the eye, discourage reader engagement and blur topics. Write digestible paragraphs comprising closely related ideas and points of information. If “one of these things is not like the other” within a paragraph, move it to a more fitting one. Paragraphs have no set length. They can contain many sentences or just one, or even one word, set off for special effect.
  3. Songs need hooks. Ads need hooks. Your story must begin with a galvanizing idea couched in potent terms. A boring first line invites readers to bail out before they get to the second. (Check out the aborted leads for this story at the bottom of this page.) Don’t be satisfied until you have a good one. Hints:
    1. Don’t obsess over your lead until you’ve written the second draft.
    2. Beginning writers often bury the lead; be on the lookout for that brilliant opener lurking in paragraph 5.
  4. Listen for the music. Sentences can sound short and staccato and bristle with consonants. Like this bit - which stops short. Or sentences may sway this way and that, looping through modifying clauses as if borne on a breeze before finally gliding to a landing as soft and hushed as a moth alighting on a petal. OK, that might be too poetic for a post on dweezil manufacturing, but do be aware of the sound of your words and the flow of your sentences.
  5. Read aloud, not only for awareness of the music, but also to activate your innate baloney detector. If a point strikes a false note in your ear, you probably need to correct or remove it. Even better: Have a friend read aloud for you.
  6. Be yourself. If you’re stumbling over words and phrases as you read aloud, you’re writing in terms that would never come out of your mouth in 100 years of talking. So it sounds fake to you and it will sound fake to your readers. Don’t imitate the style of something you read somewhere. Write in your natural voice, but with the ambiguities, inefficiencies and errors excised.
  7. Hunt down and kill the verb “to be” when possible. Replace bland, all-purpose verbs with specific and compelling ones. These practices promote tighter, livelier writing. Be especially vigilant for sentences that begin “It is,” “There is,” and so on. Your sentences, like your stories, should lead strong, and that means subject-verb-object constructions. Very often, a form of the verb “to be” adjoins an adverb or adjective that ought to be the active verb. (See example d below.)
  8. Some granular examples from recent editing projects:
    1. ORIGINAL: When most B2B companies start redesigning their website, there are a few questions that pop up right away. BETTER: A few questions always pop up when B2B companies redesign their websites. 17 words vs. 12 with no loss of meaning.
    2. ORIGINAL: Is there anything you can “borrow” from your competitor’s and improve upon? BETTER: Can you “borrow” from and improve upon competitors’ websites? 12 words vs. 9, with a much stronger lead. We’re six words into the original before we really know what it’s about.
    3. ORIGINAL: So you need a dedicated mobile app to deliver your content? Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t. With over 1 million apps in the App Store and 1.2 million apps available for Android devices, the first question asked is usually “How can I make my app stand out?” However, the first question should be “Do I really need a dedicated app?” BETTER: With over 1 million apps in the App Store and 1.2 million available for Android devices, the first question marketing and sales people ask is: “How can I make my app stand out?” Wrong question. The first thing to ask is: “Do I really need a dedicated app?” Version 2 rules, and not only because it eliminates 17 words. It also eliminates a glaring redundancy. In the original, the first two sentences and the last sentence say the same thing in different words. Avoid that; say it once but say it best. Version 2 rules also because of specificity. It tells us that marketing and sales people, rather than a mysterious “they” shrouded in a passive construction, pose this question.
    4. ORIGINAL: Flash forward a couple of years, Yahoo and Alta Vista were the search engines of choice and mainstream companies began to have a presence on the web. Even with adoption gaining ground, a large majority of content was simply a “webified” version of their standard print material.BETTER: Flash forward a couple of years. Yahoo and Alta Vista were the search engines of choice and mainstream companies began to build web presence. But most of those companies simply “webified” their standard print material. Word count falls from 47 to 35. “Flash forward a couple of years,” which has nothing to do with the next sentence, breaks off into its own thought and gives some bite to the rhythm. The charming neologism “webified,” in the original masquerading as an adjective, becomes the highly charged verb in a more compact sentence.
  9. At the end of the whole process, before you hit “publish,” pause. Take it from the top one more time and eliminate every word you can without reducing value to your reader. I’m about to do just that right now.
  10. Postscript: 141 words trimmed. You’re welcome.
The tomb of the rejected leads:
In this cacophonous world of online media, if you waste your readers’ time by inefficiently loading limited meaning into an excessive number of words, you will in the long run chase your readers away.
Hmm… 34 words. Starts with a cliché. Try again.
Limited meaning loaded into too many words wastes your readers’ time. Keep doing it and they’ll leave your blog and never come back.
Better; 23 words. But a passive construction opens. And the second sentence scoldsMaybe something more positive…
Help your readers get all the way to the end of your blog posts. Pack lots of meaning into the fewest number of words.
Dang! Twenty-four words. And bland. No rhythm. I miss the part about competition for attention. And brevity isn’t the only thing; something about vividness should be in the lead... How about:
Vivid, economical writing serves readers well and distinguishes your blog from a crowded field.
OK, 14 words, encouraging tone, clear thesis statement. Five strong words to open. Not bad. But why not try something more dramatic, to represent how dragooned, non-writer bloggers really feel?

Tom Strini
Consultant, Marketing Content Writer
Tom Strini is a  consultant and marketing content writer. His work at Northwoods  follows a career as a writer and editor, including 27 years as music and dance critic at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, four years as senior editor and managing partner at Third Coast Daily online, and stints as a free-lancer, in-house advertising writer, and a staff editor at IEEE Computer Magazine. He now resides in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches courses in writing, music and art at Oregon State University.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

October Update: New Lives in Oregon

Update Oct. 16: We finally arrived in Corvallis, Oregon, on Sept. 16, at 12:40 p.m. At 1:30 p.m., Lee Ann attended her first official meeting on campus as director of Oregon State University's School of Arts and Communications. A month later, she's loving it and thriving in the job.

We were supposed to move into an apartment overlooking the Willamette River, in downtown Corvallis. That new building still is not ready for occupancy. So we're still in Room 337 in the Holiday Inn Express.

In the interim, we took a second look at a house we saw back in June, when we first visited. We put an offer in and, assuming all the paperwork goes through, we will close on Oct. 23. The house needs some updates and we find it lacking in design style. But light abounds within, a big thing in a place with lots of gloomy, overcast, rainy days. The house has great studio space for Lee Ann, and best of all, it's a 10-minute walk to her office. Hotels and restaurants have their benefits, but I'm ready to have a home again and start cooking.

I've been taking care of moving business (insurance, mortgage, banking, bill paying...), working on a bit of free-lance content marketing work, and hitting the hotel workout room every day. I'm about to sign a contract to teach writing at Oregon State, so a syllabus and planning have hopped onto my agenda. The course is Critical Writing About the Arts. I proposed a learning-by-doing approach, and the director of the program gave me the OK. The students, most of them seniors, and I will create an instant arts magazine and cover as many events and publish as many stories as we can in 10 weeks. We'll publish frequently and use social media to draw an audience. We start Jan. 7. Looking forward to it.

And last but not least, I'll play my first soccer match in Oregon on Sunday. My first Over-50 league. I watched a bit of a game last week. Finally -- I've found a game slow enough for me.

Update Sept. 4: As some of you have noticed, it is now Sept. 4 and Lee Ann and I are still in Milwaukee.

Some unforeseen personal setbacks, which I won't go into on the world wide web, thwarted our plans to leave for Corvallis on July 30. We pull out of the sale of our home in Milwaukee and the planned purchase of a home in Oregon.

But those problems are largely behind us now. Our Riverwest home sold a second time -- in a flash, before it even went officially on the market. Thanks, Shorewest Realty and neighbor/agent Sandy Jandegian - you folks are the best. We still have to find some place to live in Corvallis, but we might have that figured out, at least on a temporary basis.

Oregon State University, where Lee Ann is to become Director of the School of the Arts and Communications, and Dean Larry Rodgers, could not have been kinder and more accommodating. Lee Ann has already started working for OSU via the modern communications marvels of the Internet age.

So as it turns out, our plans to move were merely delayed, not ended. We're leaving Tuesday, Sept. 8, on a leisurely road trip. We plan to arrive in Corvallis Sept. 14. I will fly back at the end of the month to take care of some lingering business. But as of next Tuesday Lee Ann Garrison and I will no longer be Milwaukeeans.

You also might have noticed that I have attended but not reviewed some marvelous early-season events, notably the Aug. 30 Present Music concert featuring my old friend, composer Kamran Ince, and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of Master Class, starring the overwhelming Angela Iannone and featuring another old friend, Alicia Berneche, as a feisty student who goes toe to toe with the grande dame.

I must admit: I felt great relief at leaving the hall after that concert and that play and feeling no obligation to stay up writing until 2 in the morning.

I've published 165 stories for this blog between Sept. 24 and July 12. That's a torrid pace for any writer, and I've kept that pace for decades at the Journal Sentinel and four years at Third Coast Daily. Blogging, if it is to be economically worthwhile, requires huge effort. The planning, event attendance and writing are just the beginning. I would also have to sell ads and figure out how to get you, dear readers, to pay a little something for my work. Tom Strini Writes showed some promise as a small business, but it would have taken another year to develop it. If we were staying in Milwaukee, I would have thrown myself into it.

Now that we're leaving, expending all that effort until the very end seems pointless. So I've concentrated on my day job, at Northwoods Strategic Web Solutions, which in addition to a paycheck has given me an enjoyable learning experience amid interesting, committed people. They have made me feel valued. And as it turns out, I knew more about content marketing strategy and execution than I realized.

Consulting and free-lancing in that field will be a big part of my new life; arts writing will not. Couldn't do that in Corvallis, Ore., even if I wanted to. I will teach a few classes at Oregon State, and I will write about food and wine on this very blog. That will be enough.

I will gather all the Milwaukee stories into an archive and keep it readily accessible indefinitely. I must say, I'm gratified that the back catalog on this blog continues to attract a surprising 100-300 readers per day, even though this is my first post since July 12. Thanks, everyone, for your persistence. The total page views as of now stands at 88,271. Not bad for the first 10 months of a one-man arts blog with zero marketing budget.

Still, I have no regrets at ending my 32-year run as Milwaukee's hardest-working arts critic. I'm proud of the work I've done and I believe I've made a difference in this town. But as I said once before, nothing lasts forever.

I might have one or two more stories in me before I leave. I should write some reminiscence about at least some of the marvelous artists I've have the pleasure to admire on stages and in galleries and some summing up on the state of the arts as they now stand in this beleaguered town. So please do continue to drop by for the next few days.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Strini Oregon Update, the Riverwest Garden Tour, and Coming Soon

Oregon Trail Update

On June 17, I announced that Lee Ann Garrison and I would leave Milwaukee for Corvallis, Oregon, where she will become the Director of the School of the Arts and Communications at Oregon State University.

Things have happened quickly since then. We listed our Milwaukee home on June 24 and visited Corvallis June 25-30 to look for a home there. Our house sold on June 26, and the next day we put in an offer on a home in Corvallis. Both deals have gone forward; we close in Milwaukee on July 30 and in Corvallis on August 6.

The Oregon Capitol Building
I found Corvallis in particular and Oregon in general to be heavenly. We visited the elegant Art Deco capitol building in Salem and the bustling fishing fleet town of Newport. Interstate 5 is well to the east of Corvallis; no freeways run anywhere near the glorious Oregon coast, which you reach by roads that wind through the coastal mountains and the deep forests and sunny meadows that blanket them.

Wineries are everywhere, and the food and wine culture is very high throughout the region. I look forward to writing about that as the new focus of this blog. (I will gather all the Milwaukee Arts Stories into a single, readily accessed archive and preserve it indefinitely.) The restaurants we visited in Corvallis were very good indeed and modestly priced.

The charming old downtown lies on a flat plain above the Willamette River, which flows north to join the Columbia River above Portland, about 100 miles above Corvallis. The pace of the town was casual in June, but will surely bustle more when the full complement of 27,000 OSU students return to school in the fall. That plain extends miles to the west, where the growing OSU main campus (est. 1868) extends from 11th Street to 35th Street. University agricultural and forestry research lands go far beyond that.

The city streets climb and wind into foothills to the northwest, where streets end when the land becomes too steep to build on. Many houses there nestle into tall timber. No two houses are quite the same, because the landforms dictate irregular lots and hillside building strategies. The long growing season, abundant rain and rich soil make just about every homeowner a serious gardener.

Corvallis spreads to the southwest along the curving course of the Marys River, a sizable tributary of the Willamette. More conventional subdivisions have popped up on more conventional lots on the flat ground near US Highway 20. Another string of steep hills rises around the Corvallis Country Club and its large golf course.

Those homes went up between the mid 1950s and about 1990. Ours dates to 1986, by far the newest of the five houses Lee Ann and I will have owned in our 38 years together. It's perched atop a little mountain,
on a pie-slice lot of maybe a third of an acre on a sharp curve in the little lane. You can't see it in the picture, but a wood-fenced grove of maybe 30 mature oaks is just off to the left of the house. We are in the city limits exactly 2.2 miles from the Memorial Union at the heart of the OSU campus. The clincher for us is the studio space for Lee Ann. The original owner built an annex off the attached garage as a workshop, complete with heat, power, good light and running water. Ideal for a painter.

Leaving Wisconsin Sale

We're starting to pack up for the long move, and we're shedding items we won't need. Some bookshelves, the solid oak kitchen table and chairs my parents bought a month after I was born in 1949, a sweet little half-size guitar suitable for beginner kids, at least one ladder, a snowblower, an electric lawn edger, a couple of sidewalk ice chippers, snow shovels, a nifty desk, books and plenty more all must go, and priced to sell. Email me if you want dibs on anything;

Riverwest Garden Tour

Or you could drop by Sunday (July 13), as our house is a stop on the Riverwest Secret Garden Tour; I'll have some stuff out in the garage if you care to shop. Otherwise, just enjoy the last public showing of Lee Ann's exquisite Riverwest garden. Sign up for the tour right here.

Coming Soon to the Strini Blog

I'm not quite through writing about the arts in Milwaukee. I attended the press preview of the Postcards from America photo show at the Milwaukee Art Museum this week and will write that up over the weekend. I do hope to get to the Dancemakers Programs A and B July 24-26 at UWM. And at some point I will have to write that last column about all those music and dance concerts, all those plays, all those operas, all that art, and all those artists I've seen and known over all these years in Milwaukee.

I wouldn't want to leave without saying goodbye.

Oh, One More Thing: Even though I've been AWOL for a couple of weeks, the blog has continued to pile up good numbers. As of today, the page view count is 80,500. Thanks for dropping by, everyone.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Present Music: Ever So Humble

A lot went wrong with Home, Present Music's finale Saturday. Technical problems interrupted the evening a couple of times. A threat of rain forced the amateur groups, which were to provide atmospheric music in Catalano Square Park, into the Broadway Theatre Center.

The formal setting of the Cabot Theatre threw too much light on the musical amateurishness of the eight women singing in the Rose Grace Gospel Choir, a small group of young Urban Ecology Center leaders from the Sherman Park and Washington Park neighborhoods, and a pair of kids and their teacher from Carmen High School in Burnham Park.

All would have been more charming in Catalano Square, but some of their charm made it indoors. The big audience took demonstrative delight in seeing and hearing the kids overcome their shyness and enjoy their moments. Inversely, the bold confidence of the Rose Grace ladies as they found their way through "Safe and Free," which they wrote collectively under Kurt Cowling's supervision, could only make you smile. All in all, it was like folk art: Maybe the perspective is off in that naive painting, but something about its blunt honesty and delight in the doing reach out even to a sophisticated viewer.

Those three collective efforts related obliquely to the highly sophisticated, 65-minute Shelter, a collaborative composition by David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, with a libretto by Deborah Artman. Artman's poems, ranging from fragmentary to elaborate, define each of the seven sections. Several of them take the form of litanies. (You can read it here.) The sections also tie to films by Bill Morrison and/or Laurie Olinder. Artistic director Kevin Stalheim, wearing a headset with cues to coordinate music with video, conducted three sopranos, string quartet, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, electric guitar, bass guitar and percussion.

The composers give no hint in the program as to who composed what. The music varies widely in its sounds, but maintains a rhapsodic mood throughout. You don't analyze this music as it goes by, you enter into its sometimes violent and sometimes calm dream states.

I kept thinking of Philip Glass' landmark Einstein on the Beach; Shelter could be its harmonically denser and somewhat less repetitive grandchild. The music throughout is not exactly tonal. The composers trade in dissonance and consonance less in terms of tension and release and more in terms of timbre. Seconds, sevenths and tritones and thirds, fourths and fifths fall on the ears as harmonic colors, not as components of chord progressions.

Colors of harmony, pitch and orchestration do create moods related to the libretto. For example, shrill winds sound alarms in "Is the Wind," and chattering brass, a chugging bass and driving percussion amplify the sense of urgency. The text asks three key questions in siting a home; the last is "Can I see my enemy?" Artman's litany for "American Home," Shelter's centerpiece, is a long list of everything you need, from 20 yards of concrete to 30 lighting fixtures, for a 2500-square-foot house. The music here percolates and turns very Philip Glass, recalling the "numbers" choruses from Einstein.

The orchestra dropped out entirely in my favorite section, "I Want to Live." Artman reduced the text to "I want to live where you live." Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, Jenny Gettel and Chelsie Propst -- who displayed sterling musicianship and beautiful voices throughout -- turned the words over again and again, changing their harmonic colors, cycling them through rhythms square and syncopated, spinning out a mantra that says everything that needs to be said about love.

The films -- some of them compilations of found footage of home movies and newsreels from the  1930s, 1940s, 50s and 60s -- are very much in tune with the music. (I wonder which came first?) Morrison's original films for "Is the Wind" and  "The Boy Sleeps" episodes are exquisite: Landscapes pass in a smooth side scroll that varies in speed but never in angle. A red desert gives way to a forest, with trees silhouetted at dusk. Night falls and houses and their lights stand out in the woods. We slow way down and a man takes a long time to open a sash window as we pass. The hyper-realism of it all and the intense awareness of the ordinary are very much the stuff of dreams.

Stalheim collaborated with Sharon Hansen's Milwaukee Choral Artists on vocal projects for years. Hansen has left town and MCA has disbanded, so the newly formed Present Music Hearing Voices made its debut Saturday. Bensman-Rowe, Gettel, Propst, Faith Danneil, Tom Leighton, Daniel O'Dea, Paul Rowe and Lee Stovall sang nifty arrangements of "Our House" (arr. Paula Foley Tillen), "Little Boxes" (Brian Myers) and "The Home Fire" (Nathan Wesselowski) in the first part of the evening. They also sang the a cappella Passacaglia by the fabulously talented Caroline Shaw. Vocalise gives way to a welter of spoken word which in turn gives way to wordless tone in this brief charmer, which turns in large part on the singers' ability to vary timbre from pure tone to the flattest nasality.

Violinists Eric Segnitz and Naha Greenholtz, violist Erin Pipal and cellist Adrien Zitoun played Bryce Dessner's Aheym. The piece, in one movement, accompanied Matthew Ritchie's video in which abstract floating shapes behave rather like schooling fish. The music contrasts sections of chunky chords spat out in rhythmic unison against watery, layered, interlocking ostinatos mostly in 5/8 time. Lots of imagination here, within a straightforward form of ABA1B1A2B2 etc.

Stalheim ended with his own fun mash-up of Dvořák ("Goin' Home," the "spiritual" back-formation from the New World symphony); a choral reprise of "Our House"; recorded sound effects and quotations from movies regarding the concept of home; wind players in the aisles; a radio account of a baseball player rounding third and going home; a wonderfully robust audience singalong of "Home, Sweet Home"; and Stalheim's debut as a blues-rock singer.

As many of you know, we're about to leave our Milwaukee home. I will miss Kevin and Present Music a great deal.

More Strini on Music.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Alchemist Theatre's "Oleanna" Cancelled Due to Cease & Desist Order

Press Release Issued Friday Afternoon from Alchemist Theatre:

It is with great sadness that we must announce the cancellation of our production of David Mamet’s Oleanna. We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship which is more about power is not gender specific but gender neutral. We stayed true to each of David Mamet’s powerful words and did not change the character of Carol but allowed the reality of gender and relationship fluidity to add to the impact of the story. We are so very proud of the result of both Ben and David Shapiro’s talent and Erin Eggers’ direction.

From the show’s  program:
Oleanna was first produced a year after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. It is widely thought to be a direct reaction to the controversy. I think that framework is important, but the play is far deeper than a he-said she-said argument. It never moves in the direction you think it is going. David Mamet is a brilliant wordsmith and pushes his characters (and the actors portraying them) to uncomfortable places that challenge our concepts of right and wrong, political correctness, and action vs. intention. Both characters are flawed. Both make mistakes. In the end, are either of them justified? You decide.
Let me first say that I did not decide to cast Carol as gender fluid to be shocking or controversial or to try to improve on Mr. Mamet’s script. I just really felt and feel that the character he has written is gender fluid. On any given day, in any given act, Carol might identify as female or male or both or neither.
From The Transgender Child by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper: "Gender fluidity conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender expression, with personal appearance and behaviors that may even change from day to day. For some children, gender fluidity extends beyond behavior and interests, and actually serves to specifically define their gender identity. In other words, a child may feel they are a girl some days and a boy on others, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately."
It is also important to note that a person’s core identity is comprised of the following:
Gender Identity - your deep inner feeling of gender, regardless of anatomy
Style of behavior - your natural inclinations and expressions
Sexual orientation – to whom you are attracted
Let me next say that apart from that casting decision, not a single word or intention has been altered in the script. It is my hope that as soon as the play starts, neither character’s gender identity will not be a distraction. We intentionally did not release the name of the actor playing Carol in advance because we did not want to make the play about the casting. This is a play about words, and that is exactly on what we intend to focus.

Unfortunately, Dramatists Play Service, Inc. who represents David Mamet and who we obtained rights from disagreed and sent us a Cease & Desist letter today. Although we feel very strongly about our respectful and honest portrayal of Mr. Mamet’s work we also feel strongly about protecting his intellectual property rights.

Therefore we will be issuing full refunds and complimentary tickets to another Alchemist show to each ticket holder.

Thank you so much for your support and for allowing us to entertain you.

Erica Case & Aaron Kopec

Owners, Alchemist Theatre

In Oleanna, which Alchemist Theatre opened Thursday, David Mamet drops Carol, the sniveling, failing student, into the office of John, her windy and insecure professor of, oh, educational philosophy or some such course with room for idle, mock-revolutionary blather.

The entire play takes place in that office, which becomes like the cage in a death match.

John expresses sympathy, invites Carol to share her feelings, then cuts her off with his own endless commentaries. A ringing phone interrupts him, again and again, as his wife is trying to settle purchase of a new home. He's just passed tenure review, you see, and he's feeling prosperous.

John's a pompous ass, in a hipsterish sort of way, as played by David Sapiro. But Mamet wrote a level of sympathy into the role, and Sapiro gets that across. He means well, in the way of people who want to feel great about themselves for meaning well. He's blind to the utter pretense of what he imagines to be revolutionary theories about education. He just wants to love his wife and kid, buy a house, get tenure and spend the rest of his days pontificating before adoring students.

John's theories bewilder Carol, who bemoans her stupidity and dismisses John's efforts to buck her up. In that first scene, it's hard to argue with her own self-assessment. John must stop and explain to her the meaning of half the words in his only moderately high-falutin' vocabulary.

Carol becomes increasingly upset; John tries to calm and comfort her. Don't put that hand on her shoulder, John, don't do it... Of course he does it and goes on to offer to give Carol an A for the course if she'll return several times to work independently.

Carol returns, newly armed with the language of militant feminism. That hand on the shoulder was sexual harrassment. She's filed a complaint that could derail his tenure. One thing leads to another, and John tries to restrain Carol when she starts to leave and down the rabbit hole they tumble, into a toxic pit of personal pettiness mixed with gender and academic politics.

They talk and talk and talk as the play goes on and communicate less and less and less. They cannot agree on the meaning of the most ordinary terms. Carol thinks -- or at least her "group" has told her that she thinks -- that John has wielded brutal patriarchal power over her. John has no idea what she's talking about, since he has never felt anything other than utterly powerless in his entire life.

So what seems to be a play about gender issues, politically correct behavior and the absurdities of academic life becomes a play about words: About what happens when words become unmoored from meaning, and what happens to us when the words we've relied upon to describe ourselves in our own minds lose their meaning. Who are we then?

As if all that isn't complex enough, director Erin Nicole Eggers cast a male, Ben Parman, as Carol. For some time, it's hard to tell whether Eggers' gender-fluid casting means to place Carol as transgendered, as transvestite or simply as a man playing a woman, in the straightforward way of a mezzo singing a male treble role in opera or male dancers playing the Stepsisters in Cinderella.
But Parman's costume and make-up just make a nod in that direction. They do not disguise his maleness.

His maleness makes a difference in this play. For starters, Parman stands a head taller than Sapiro, which automatically alters the power balance in a play with physical as well as psychological and verbal conflict. How credible is that crucial rape accusation, to us or to the offstage police, if Carol is both male and bigger than the accused?

This occurred to me only as I left the theater, not while the play was in progress. Parman, a very good actor, sold the physical scenes very well. And legal sticking points aside, the gender confusion his presence brings to the role lines up surprisingly well with Mamet's text, which Eggers did not alter.

Near the end of the first scene, after endless halting, incomplete sentences from Carol and endless boring disquisitions from John, the two characters seem to be nearing some point of human contact.
John is finally ready to listen. Carol begins to reveal the source of her difficulties with life in general and academic pursuits in particular; she says she's ready to tell her "secret." But before she can reveal it, the phone rings again, John answers it, and the moment is lost.

Carol never gets to share her secret with John. But in this particular production at the Alchemist Theatre, we have a pretty good idea of what that secret might be.

Run Cancelled Due to Legal Issues. See Press Release Above.

More Tom Strini on Theater in general.
More Strini on Mamet in particular.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Oregon Trail: One More Adventure

Oregon State University, Corvallis, has announced that Lee Ann Garrison, a long-time art professor and administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, will become director of OSU's School of Arts and Communication, effective in August. She will oversee the visual art, music, theater, communications and new media departments.

Lee Ann and I posing with our pet stove, Maury.
As many of you know, Lee Ann and I have been married since 1976. I go where she goes, for love first but for  more than love. Oregon State is an institution on the rise in a progressive state that values and funds education. I'm sure that she will accomplish great things at OSU and I want to help her do that. I am very proud of her.

Of course this means that the 2013-2014 Milwaukee arts season, which more or less ends with the June 21 Present Music program, will be the 32nd and last that I will cover as a critic. I will have more to say about what I've seen and heard and the remarkable people I've known during my Milwaukee tenure. But just now, I'm not feeling so nostalgic.

Just now, I'm looking to the future. Corvallis is a college town of about 60,000, situated on the Willamette River 40 miles north of Eugene and 84 miles south of Portland. I will do what I can to contribute to the arts scene there, but I have no intention of writing 250 stories a year and reviewing shows every weekend. I intend to have a real social life for the first time in decades.

I look forward to teaching at OSU, probably one course a semester, but that is still to be worked out. I like teaching and I'm good at it, and I can teach a variety of courses. But during my four years as senior editor at Third Coast Daily and the last nine months maintaining this blog, I've learned a good deal about social media, content marketing and marketing in general. My summer stint at Northwoods Strategic Web Solutions is proving to be a great education in that direction as well, and I intend to pursue this interesting work in Oregon.

Our house, is a very very very nice house.
I will keep up the blog and might write an arts review here and there, but I'm more inclined to change the focus to food and wine. I'm a good cook, and I understand that a serious foodie culture thrives in Oregon. Over 300 wineries dot the Willamette River Valley around Corvallis. I see myself visiting wineries, getting to know vintners, restaurateurs and chefs and sharing their stories and flavors on the blog. The 132-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway meanders through the heart of Oregon pinot noir country. I can't wait to make that ride and tell you all about it at this very blog.

I might get back into coaching soccer and baseball, and the idea of hiking and camping along the mountain trails that wind the 40 miles to the Pacific appeals to me a lot. I will definitely get my guitar chops back up and write more songs. I want to have some fun.

In the meantime I will continue to cover the Milwaukee arts scene to the extent that it exists in June and July and to the extent that I can manage it amid selling our house and moving 2500 miles.

So if you're wondering, yes! You can still buy an ad at Tom Strini Writes -- act now, before it's too late!

You can also buy one of the sweetest houses in Riverwest on one of the best blocks in Riverwest. I would like to see our house and its gardens, which we have labored over so lovingly, go to a caring owner. If you're interested, you all know where to find me.

But do find me soon. In August, we'll embark on a new adventure, and it's a long way to Corvallis, Oregon.