Art and activism: Eve Ensler’s dual identity

November 20th, 2014 No comments
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Timothy McCarthy and Eve Ensler in conversation in Farkas Hall

Harvard professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy and award-winning playwright Eve Ensler sat down Nov. 18 at Farkas Hall for a living-room-style conversation with a global-sixed topic billed as Politically Incorrect: Feminism and the Future of the Planet. The discussion came in anticipation of Ensler’s new play O.P.C. (Obsessive Political Correctness), which will premier at the American Repertory Theater at the end of November. “I first met Eve in May in her apartment in New York, and we immediately hit it off,” McCarthy said. “We decided that we were just going to reproduce that conversation when she came up here.”

To begin, Ensler spoke of a dual identity. The Vagina Monologues author has been referred to as both an artist and an activist since the beginning of her career in theater, and it’s how she refers to herself as well. “They’re equally part of my being,” Ensler said.

Ensler’s dual-mission is in line with The A.R.T. of Human Rights, a new collaboration between A.R.T. and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Spearheaded by McCarthy, who is the founding director of the Carr’s Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program, the joint venture brings together artists, academics and activists to address human rights and social justice issues through performance, dialogue and workshops.

In the course of the evening, Ensler quoted a Guatemalan saying: Struggle is the highest form of song. “In other cultures art and activism are actually seen as one,” she said. Ensler invoked feminist civil rights activist Audre Lorde to question why art and activism are often met with tension in America. “[Lorde] talks about the fact that growing up in a patriarchal culture we’ve learned to separate the political and the erotic; the political from the artistic,” Ensler said. “I think there’s something about these arbitrary splits that are actually not real.” Read more…

The suite “TEA” by Sam Wu ’17

November 19th, 2014 No comments


Sam Wu '17

Sam Wu ’17

Sam Wu ’17 and I were having lunch in a crowded dining hall to talk about his new piece TEA that the River Charles Ensemble will premiere at 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at Lowell Lecture Hall. Our table was populated with classmates who looked up from their meals to eavesdrop, if only momentarily. In my peripheral vision, I saw people staring.

There was, admittedly, a lot going on. “I live in a world of soundscapes,” Wu said spreading his hands with his palms facing upward. “And so many multiple universes of sound – I live in a multiverse, if you will.” As he continued, I couldn’t choose between listening to his words and watching his hands: Each thought was accompanied by a gesture that strangely helped the conversation flow.

The choreography, I assumed, is a byproduct of being an award-winning composer and conductor. Wu has conducted orchestras in Mongolia and at Harvard; he has worked under the guidance of famed composer and conductor Tan Dun; he has written music about the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, typhoons and the visual media of charcoal, oil paint and ink pen. He doesn’t have conversations. He conducts them. He doesn’t tell stories. He composes them.

His journey in the arts started in the visual realm, with a dream to be an architect. Taking up the violin at 7 and piano at 8 or 9, Wu didn’t enjoy music until he encountered Sibelius, not the composer, but the music composition software. “Because of my visual arts background, it made more sense to me that art should be about creation, not just interpretation,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied with just being a performer and felt like I was missing out on a huge part of the creative process. So composing was actually a very natural extension of my visual arts experience.”

Wu (right) earlier this year in Shanghai, China.

Wu (right) earlier this year in Shanghai, China.

The fire and energy with which he speaks almost made me forget the deliberateness with which he crafts answers. When asked about his composition process, Wu held his hands still for a moment, thinking. “The thing about these interviews is that I can tell you something dramatic, or I can tell you the truth,” he joked. “I can’t think of anything dramatic now, but I’ll tell you the truth.”

Here’s the truth. “I start with a huge piece of music paper” – he indicated exactly how huge – “and I draw pictures; I draw lines; I draw melodies, and I annotate everything. I start from a kind of …” He paused again, making a sort of downward flicking motion, half slinging, half sprinkling. “A splattering,” he settled on eventually. “I start from this splattering of ideas that looks like a Jackson Pollock, and then think about how to layer these raw ingredients. There’s a lot of blurriness, so I can’t tell you exactly how.”

“For TEA,” he continued, “I read magazines and books and articles, and even though 95 percent of them I didn’t actually need, it was all kind of a background static that kept me composing.”

The composition of the suite was more personal than simply an academic interest, however. “My mother passed away from breast cancer this summer, and this past year was rough for the whole family,” Wu explained. “She loved drinking tea so much that it replaced water for my family, and I wanted to write something she could relate to and enjoy.”

“It made me really thankful for music, you know?” he mused, his hands folded in front of him, a finger tapping. “I was thankful for the power of music, how you can heal through beauty, how if you can channel your emotions you can make yourself ache less.”

The suite has three movements, taking place in China, Japan and India, following the journey of the tea leaf from country to country. “Each one describes tea from a different time period, a different area,” he said. “The tea theme will be in every movement, but will have a slightly different flavor.” He paused, hands frozen midair, for me to notice the wordplay. I laughed, obligingly. He continued. “You can think of the three different movements as three different glasses of boiling water, with the same leaf from Yunnan dropped in each one.”

Wu’s appreciation of his environs is obvious not only in his music, but in everyday life: “Hmm,” he said, also noticing the stares in the dining hall. “That’s interesting.” And turning back to me, he continued the conversation.

He is concentrating in Music and East Asian Studies and noted during our interview that he felt lucky to be composing at Harvard, where he could draw inspiration not only from other musicians but from historians, humanists and professors. In addition to that, though, there’s a more visceral and fundamental type of “research” that Wu has done to convey his complex messages and images with music. “I’m informed by philosophy, analysis, training,” Wu said. “I draw inspiration from culture, history and music. But when I’m stringing things together, it’s a lot of intuition, and I try to follow this.” Here, he pointed to his heart.

The River Charles Ensemble will premiere Sam Wu’s TEA and other works 8 p.m. Nov. 21 in Lowell Lecture Hall. Tickets are $8 for students and $12 for nonstudents. 

Crazy good at playwriting

November 17th, 2014 No comments
Mike Ross '16

Mike Ross ’16

Mike Ross – no, not the main character from Suits – is a very funny guy. A junior in Quincy House, Ross ’16 is a student playwright who has written three full-length works since arriving at Harvard. After writing the book for his year’s Freshman Musical, What the Hell?!, Ross took on the considerable task of penning the book and lyrics for his own original musical In Other Words (with music composed by Sam Pottash ’16). The show was produced in the Loeb Experimental Theater last spring. This semester, his play Carrie and Otis premiered at the Adams Pool Theater. I had a chance to speak with Ross over a delicious plate of HUDS curry about being a playwright and a Harvard student – at the same time.

How has being at Harvard influenced you as a playwright?
Harvard has influenced me the way anyone would be influenced by a school where everyone’s crazy good at something: It has pushed me to be better. The other students involved in theater here and the leaders of the writing workshops are all really fantastic, and you can either get intimidated or you can try to get on or near or mildly closer to their level. Or you can do both.

Describe your process of developing an idea and actually putting it down onto paper.
It’s always one based a lot on collaboration and checking in with people – me, and whoever I’m working with, usually my producer Megan Jones. We come up with an idea, then we talk about outlines and characters, where the plot can go and what venue it would be good for, and then about a month later we throw out the idea entirely and do a completely new idea, and that’s usually what people wind up seeing. And that’s great, because it comes from deciding what feels good and what doesn’t feel good, based on talking about it.

Basically when it comes to writing, they always tell you “write what you want to read, or want to see,” and that’s what I always start out doing. But I also check with other people: Does this make sense outside of my own weird little head? And that’s why I’m talking to other people even before I start writing things. If I’m going to invest that much time and energy into creating a show, I want to make sure that it’s not something that at the end of it I’ll look back on it and say: “Welp – that was a – negative adjective.”

When you’ve produced a fully formed script, how involved are you then in the rehearsal process?
Once the script is out of my grubby little hands, it is pretty much the director and the actors making it way better than I ever could have imagined. I’m really lucky in that I get to sit in the back and watch the rehearsals. At the end, if they have questions, the directors ask me stuff – but at the end of the day I really trust the people I’m working with. They get to control the final say on the script. Read more…

Mary Kenny: From pin-up to pious

November 17th, 2014 No comments

Mary Kenny explores identity, sexuality, power and the female form in her exhibition Adorned at the Harvard Ceramics Studio. From pin-up to pious, Kenny’s ceramic figures are an exploration of woman and the cultural disparities that affect her image.

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Adorned runs through Nov. 21, at Gallery 224, The Harvard Ceramics Studio.

The science of comedy with Megan Amram ’10

November 13th, 2014 No comments

Megan Amram ’10 stepped onto stage at the Brattle Theater to roaring applause and whistles. The comedy writer, hosted by Harvard Book Store on Nov. 10, played to a crowd of friends, students and fans who know her as a Harvard grad but also as a staff writer for NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Amram is on tour to promote her first book, Science…For Her! , which she describes as a “female science textbook designed to look like Cosmo.” The book builds upon the dark humor she is famous for in her active Twitter feed, a collection of often-ridiculous jokes with 442,000 followers.

Megan Amram '10 gives a reading of her new book, "Science...For Her!" at the Brattle Theater on November 10, 2014.

Megan Amram ’10 read from her new book, “Science…For Her!”on Nov. 10 at the Brattle Theater.

At Harvard, Amram and her roommate Alexandra Petri ’10, now a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote two Hasty Pudding Theatrical shows together, Acropolis Now and Commie Dearest. Upon graduation, Amram moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy writing and landed her first job writing jokes for the 2011 Oscars, hosted by Anne Hathaway and James Franco. More writing jobs followed, such as at ABC’s A.N.T. Farm and at Parks and Rec. 

At the bookstore, Amram read selections from Science, which has chapter titles such as “How to Build a Biological Clock Out of a Potato,” “What Religion Is Right for Your Body Type?” and “Glamorous Ways to Die.” Decked in a lab coat, Amram took on the persona of a woman who lives for women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan. In a sickeningly sweet voice laden with satire, she assured the audience that no one looked fat that evening, read punchy passages about how to build one’s biological clock using a vegetable (in the end, the husband is the one who deals with the “wires and stuff” ), how to die with allure (“Smallpox fits everyone, like the traveling pants!”) and offered recipe’s from “Paula Deen‘s healthy new cookbook.” (In a recipe for egg whites, Cadbury Eggs provide the protein). Throughout the evening, Amram often paused to wait for laughter to subside.

After the reading, Amram took questions from audience members, who asked about her relationship to a song about hoagies and how she got the idea for a parodic magazine-style “science” textbook. Read more…

Linda Leavell on fact, fiction and space between

November 12th, 2014 No comments

Linda LeavellThe softspoken Linda Leavell is fascinated by artists caught between worlds. In nearly three decades, she has authored two books about poet Marianne Moore, one of which – Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore – she’ll be presenting highlights of at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13 in Houghton Library. In the years surrounding and between her study of Moore, she has also studied the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the painters of the Stieglitz Circle, drawn to the intersection of modern poetry and modern art.

Now retired from teaching American literature at Oklahoma State University, Leavell is focused on artistic pursuits: writing, and volunteering as an art museum guide. This transition is ostensibly strange, knowing how much of Leavell’s career has been shaped by her academic pursuits. She traced her interest in visual art back to a fifth grade report on Michelangelo, and stumbled upon Marianne Moore while looking for a dissertation topic. After that, a revised version of her dissertation on Moore’s relationship with the visual arts became her first book, and she’s been delving ever deeper since.

The methodology with which she wrote her books aligns with historical research and literary analysis. Looking through archived letters between Moore’s mother and her children, Leavell noted “an interesting family dynamic, a correspondence marked by animal nicknames, private mythologies, private baby-talk languages” that hinted at a mother’s attempt to “keep her children children.” This dynamic was reflected in Moore’s poetry: Her art became an “outlet for individuality in an oppressive family environment.” And as Leavell has studied Moore’s poems over time, she says Read more…

Leslie Ferrin’s “Made in China” adventure

November 12th, 2014 No comments
Vipoo Srivilasa Patience Flower

Vipoo Srivilasa’s “The Patience Flower”

The Harvard Ceramics Studio was, as usual, chalky, brightly-lit and a bit cavernous. Apron-clad potters tread lightly beside the bisque-lined shelves; the rustlings of plastic coverings and gentle thrum of electric wheels were punctuated with frequent “excuse me’s,” and, at 6 p.m., came: “Last call for the lecture! Last call!” I slid into one of the studio’s side rooms at the last moment and found it echoing with chatter, and packed enough that silhouettes of audience heads blocked the projected images on the wall.

This took place on November 11, when OFA Ceramics Program visiting scholar Leslie Ferrin gave the slide presentation Made in China: The New Export Ware on her 2014 travels through Jingdezhen and Chongqing. After the lights were switched off and the projector switched on, a long procession of images followed: some fuzzy from the hurry with which they were taken, some sharply focused and perfectly lit to emphasize the intricacy of the craft. “Every moment was a photo opportunity,” marveled Ferrin, and every photo opportunity she had taken turned into a moment for the audience. Ferrin’s travels were so well-documented that it seemed at times that she had been on a guided tour; by the same token, it was a completely organic, unmediated adventure in unfamiliar territory.

“I was neither welcomed nor not welcome,” said Ferrin, pausing to reflect on her time in the pottery-filled cultures of both cities. “I was someone who was there; people showed me things if I asked, but I was also free to explore.”

Caroline Cheng, Robin Best, Steven Young Lee and other ceramic artists were in the presentation; intentionally “aged” ceramic shards, Mao figurines and an enchanting upward-dripping bowl appeared as well. Other slides displayed ceramic works atop Read more…

Harvard Dance Project goes analog with “LOOK UP”

November 12th, 2014 No comments

Harvard Dance Project dancers perform in the spotlight during “LOOK UP.”

Last Sunday, I broke bread with strangers at the Harvard Dance Center. During one part of LOOK UP, the Harvard Dance Project’s two-hour installation choreographed by OFA Harvard Dance Program director Jill Johnson, the dancers invited audience members to eat bread and jam picnic-style on the floor. While Merengue music filled the room, upwards of 30 people sat on a red-checkered blanket sharing food, all smiles and little talk.

The installation-style “gallery in motion,” which runs through Nov. 15 at the Harvard Dance Center, is a response to the digital overload we often experience in our modern age. The event’s program quotes New York Times journalist Matt Richtel, who writes: “[digital information of variable value] creates a lure called intermittent reinforcement, a powerful draw that comes with uncertainty of the reward. It’s the very thing that causes a rat in a cage to press a lever repeatedly when it isn’t sure which press will bring the next delivery of food. It presses again and again, just as we click to open our text or email programs.”

LOOK UP is meant to be an antidote to the phenomenon Richtel describes. As the event’s title suggests, audience members are encouraged to come in, unplug and to “look up ” — away from their phones, laptops and all of the technology and media that seizes a significant part of our attention each day. To achieve this, the performance is entirely interactive and iterative. Audience members move freely throughout the seven partitioned stations set up by Johnson and seven dancers. The space is an artistic playground, inviting the audience to engage physically. Read more…

Taking the risk: The A.R.T. of Human Rights

November 10th, 2014 No comments


Timothy McCarthy

Timothy Patrick McCarthy

American Repertory Theater is no stranger to the fact that art can address issues of social justice to reach a wide audience. Consider the premier of Witness Uganda last spring. This fall kicked off The A.R.T. of Human Rights, a new collaboration between A.R.T. and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. The joint venture brings together artists, academics and activists to address human rights and social justice issues through performance, dialogue and workshops. Past programming includes a discussion on civil rights with Robert Schenkkan, author of All the Wayand a conversation Nov. 18 will feature playwright Eve Ensler, whose new play O.P.C. will premier at the A.R.T. this month. The events are directed and hosted by Timothy Patrick McCarthy, director of the Carr’s Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program. I spoke with McCarthy about his love of the theater, his hope for the programming and the role risk taking plays in improving the world through art. 

What made you want to join arts and social issues to affect change?
I’ve always been someone who understood and appreciated the power of art. Not only the power of art to move people and affect people in various ways emotionally, but also the power of art to inspire new thinking and social change. That came from a very specific work of art that I encountered in 1993 when I moved from Harvard, as an undergraduate, to New York, for grad school in the history department at Columbia. I got a ticket to see Angels in America, Tony Kushner‘s masterpiece, which was just then opening on Broadway. I’m from upstate New York, so I spent my childhood going back and forth to the city to see Broadway shows and other kinds of art with my parents and other people. One of the draws of New York was that it had this remarkable art world and, in particular, theater. When I entered graduate school, I was kind of a confused kid, in the sense that I was still in the closet and very much struggling with issues of sexuality and identity. I went to see Angles in America, not because I fully understood the scope of what Kushner was trying to do, but because I had read a really great review of Angels in America by Frank Rich [Harvard '71] who was  The New York Times theater reviewer at the time. So I went to the show, and one of the things that was most striking — in addition to it being quite brilliant as a work of theater — is when the lights came on: I looked around me and saw everyone in tears. I realized then that many of the people in that theater had lost many people in the AIDS crisis, were still losing people. Many of them, despite being sick themselves perhaps, were nonetheless still alive and had been moved by that piece of art which spoke to them so powerfully. I remember being moved myself. It was the first time I realized just how overwhelming the AIDS crisis was. I suddenly had this amazing appreciation for what Kushner was able to capture in that play. It really set in motion a much deeper period of self-reflection and transformation. I was wrestling with my identity, and I came out of the closet a couple years later. Angels in America had a profound impact on my life and the lives of people like me. Read more…

Telling history through art

November 8th, 2014 No comments

unnamedWith the abundance of theater that occurs at Harvard each weekend, it’s easy to forget that there are professionals creating and collaborating on new works just a few T stops away in Boston. This Sunday, Harvard Hillel will team up with the Boston-based theater company Israeli Stage to produce a staged reading of the play At Night’s End, at Harvard Hillel. The play focuses on a family and the affect the 2006 Second Lebanon War has on its relationships. The reading includes students from Emerson Collete and Harvard, as well as Equity actors. I spoke with producer Alona Bach about the collaboration, the inclusion of the community in the reading, and making art about current events.

What does the collaboration entail?
It is a reading of the play At Night’s End by Motti Lerner. It was written originally in Hebrew, but translated it into English, and we’re doing the English version. It’s a staged reading directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, who is the director of Israeli Stage. His company, Israeli Stage, puts on these readings of plays that were written originally in Hebrew, and translated into English. They tour to schools and community centers around Boston. They also have a full production up at Arts Emerson this year, which is really exciting. I got in touch with him over the summer, and we decided we would bring a reading to Harvard, but instead of just having it with his Equity actors, he would bring two Equity actors to play the parents, and the rest would be played by members of the community. That’s what will be going up on Sunday, and it will be followed by a talk back. Read more…