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Greg Daniels ’85: Comedy JAMS

January 6th, 2014 No comments

Greg Daniels '85

If you watch comedy TV, there’s a good chance you’ve seen (and laughed at) the work of Greg Daniels ’85. After writing for The Harvard Lampoon as an undergraduate, he went on to become a writer for Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation. During Wintersession, he and fellow TV writer Robert Carlock ’95 (30 Rock, Friends, SNL) will hold comedy writing intensives for students as part of the Office of Fine Art’s JAMS! Daniels and I exchanged emails about his experience with comedy and advice for aspiring writers.

What drew you to screenwriting? How is it like other types of writing?
I think It is similar to other forms of fiction writing in that you need to create characters, stories, pacing and dialogue. It is different in that you rarely use passages of description or the sheer poetry of your writing to move people, and you can make a good living with a fraction of the talent.


What was the process of becoming a screenwriter?
First of all, I am a television writer, not a screenwriter. That’s a meaningful difference to me, because as a writer in television, you have much more control over your work than you do in movies, where the director is in control. The process has two parts, I would say, which are  working on your writing skills and developing a general knowledge of other people’s jobs and how the industry works.   Your first writing job is almost always won by  the quality of your writing samples; a really great sample attracts attention without you having to push hard. The sample needs to be just the right amount of original — something fresh and not familiar, yet not so different that it will be a risk to hire you to write whatever they are hiring for.  Most of us Hollywood writers, you may have noticed, are comfortable staying right in that zone of not-too-original.

What advice do you have for aspiring comedy writers?
Really? With your education? Wouldn’t America be better served if you went into medicine or government? OK, if you feel you must, then take it seriously and try to have high standards for yourself.  Somebody has to write all the entertainment that is beamed at us, and if you work hard, it will probably be you, so deserve it. Be original and uplifting.

What is the structure of the Wintersession program? What will you be working on with the students? What advice do you have for applicants?
Robert Carlock and I are going to have a large opening presentation with questions and answers that I hope will satisfy a general curiosity. Then I will take a smaller group and try to show what goes into conceiving of a TV program by getting as far as we can with making an original pilot together. Along the way, I think it will involve learning how a writing team works and a lot of the concerns behind how you structure scenes and write dialogue. I may use examples from what I’m currently working on as well. Applicants for the smaller session should be serious about comedy writing and have something for me to read first.  I may contact them before the session with a little homework too.

Daniels and Carlock will hold an open discussion about their careers on January 23 from 10-11:30 a.m. in the Thompson Room in the Barker Center for the Humanities on 12 Quincy Street. Register here.

JAMS: When the arts are hot in January

November 26th, 2013 No comments

January used to be just another bleak, wintry month in Cambridge. Many students returned to their families or to adventures in warmer climes. While many do take advantage of the class-free time at Harvard – winter break – and take off for other locations, increasingly students have discovered the mini festival of sorts that takes place during Wintersession (January 17-26), when the Houses and the Yard re-open to all students, and a burst of activity explodes at and around Harvard.

Wintersession is a particularly rich time in the arts, as alums and other top professionals working in the field show up at Harvard to teach January Arts and Media Seminars – aka JAMS. They come from the film, visual arts, writing, TV, arts admin, ceramics and many other  arts areas. (Check out the full list  for 2014 here.)

For students, JAMS is a time to explore arts outside the structure of a graded class.

“JAMS gives students the opportunity to explore and pursue the arts from different perspectives – as a career option or an avocation,” says Tom Lee, communications director at the Office for the Arts and one of the key programmers for JAMS. “We hope students will participate in several of these programs and perhaps learn about an artistic genre that is unfamiliar.”

The opportunity to engage intellectually and playfully in an environment that is both generated by and outside of the formality of the Harvard experience – and yet has the same signature rigor – is a wintry bonus to an undergraduate education.

JAMS also provides a pull back from other distractions, including post-holiday let down and boredom.

“It’s so rare for the Harvard student or anyone in this digital environment to have uninterrupted time for focus and deep thinking, which of course is necessary to make art,” says Cathy McCormick, OFA director of programs and a member of the JAMS programming team. “I think students will find our watercolor or ceramics course to be a great oasis for learning. And they will love our new Allston studio.”

McCormick is referring to the re-designed Harvard Ceramics Studio, one of the newly polished jewels in the OFA crown and the site for several JAMS offerings. Most Wintersession and JAMS activities are exclusively for Harvard students, but several of the JAMS events, including a master class with Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell and a conversation with filmmaker Lauren Greenfield ’87 (The Queen of Versailles), are public events organized by Lee for the Learning From Performers program. The events are free, but registration is suggested for both.

Alumni, such as Greenfield, are an important element to the JAMS experience  because it allows students to work with immensely successful practicing artists, such as two of TV’s leading showrunners and writers Robert Carlock ’95 (30 Rock, Friends, Saturday Night Live) and Greg Daniels ’85 (The Office, Parks and Recreation, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld). Carlock and Daniels will offer students insight into the creative process as well as into writing comedy.

“The fact that these are alumni artists sends a very important signal to undergraduates,” says Jack Megan, OFA director. “It suggests that Harvard students can give serious thought to a professional life in the arts – that it’s actually achievable. These are former Harvard students whose careers are living proof of this very point.”

For more information or to register for JAMS, visit the OFA JAMS web page. JAMS is co-sponsored by Harvard Alumni Association and in association with the Committee on Arts & Humanities @Harvard Medical School and the Office of Career Services.

10 Days of Art at Harvard

November 1st, 2013 No comments

November is one of the busiest months at Harvard. As we reach the half-way mark of the semester, students are more active than ever between midterms, Freshman Parents Weekend, the upcoming Harvard-Yale Game, and, for many, a nearly round-the-clock involvement in the arts. The Harvard arts calendar attests to the blitz of arts events in the coming weeks. The sheer volume and diversity of presentations and performances in even the first 10 days of November is astounding. You could easily find yourself sprinting from one event to the next.

“I think art has many roles to play here at Harvard, so part of what I hope will be exciting for the community during this time will be catching snippets of the ways art on campus serves different purposes, represents different communities and speaks to the highest artistic aspirations, as well as the importance of creative self-expression,” says Jack Megan, director of the Office of the Arts.

Given the volume of activities this month, I’m making a list of personal stops. Here’s my map of the next 10 days of arts at Harvard. But of course, don’t limit yourself to my picks. You can find a full list of the variety of events here. Truly, there is something for everyone

Day One. Friday Nov. 1

Antigonick. This fall, HRDC has brought Ianthe Demos, the artistic director of One Year Lease, to lead undergraduates in Anne Carson’s poetic translation of Sophocles Antigone. Antigonick, which closes Nov. 2, has been called an aesthetically stunning experience by audience members. As a classics geek and feminist, I have a certain fondness for the story of Antigone, so I can’t wait to see this team’s modern interpretation of this oft-told tale. Read an interview with Demos here.

Day Two. Saturday Nov. 2

HRO PRESENTS: MOZART, DVORAK, ADÉS. I always enjoy classical music, especially when Mozart is on the program. But what makes The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra’s second concert of the year extra special is a solo performance of a Dvorak violin concerto featuring Stella Chen ’15, winner of this year’s James Yannatos Concerto Competition. Read an interview with Chen here.

Day Three. Sunday Nov. 3

HFA’s CHRIS MARKER FILM SERIES. If you haven’t had the chance to visit the Harvard Film Archive, be sure to catch this month’s series.  The Archive is featuring the work of French writer and filmmaker Chris Marker, best known for his experimentation with various technologies and forms of film to explore the the muse of memory. Marker contributed to the world of cinema for half a century before passing in 2012, and his films will show at the HFA until December 16.

Day Four. Monday Nov. 4

LEARNING FROM PERFORMERS: SIMON SINGH. Sponsored by the OFA’s Learning From Performers program, Mathematician/author Simon Singh will discuss his latest book The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets. According to Singh, the beloved TV series has so many mathematical references that it drip-feeds number theory to its viewers. I can’t consider math one of my strong suits, but exploring mathematics through this famous comedy could be a fascinating journey. Read an interview with Singh here.

Day Five. Tuesday Nov. 5

GAMELAN SESSIONS.  Did you know Harvard’s Music Department has a traditional Indonesian music ensemble? This week, the Harvard Campus and Community Gamelan ensemble opens its weekly rehearsal at the SOCH to new members, or anyone just interested in checking out this unique instrumental group. As a South Asian Studies concentrator and Quad dweller, I’ll surely stop by.

Day Six. Wednesday Nov. 6

DAY OFF. Rest up for the weekend, study for exams, curl up with a cup of tea and an episode of your latest TV addiction. Wednesday is a quiet night for the arts at Harvard.

Day Seven. Thursday Nov. 7

SEESAW: Opening Thursday at the Harvard Dance Center, SEESAW is the collaborative creation of dance program director Jill Johnson and her student dancers, who have used improvisational dance and crowd-sourcing to develop this piece. The program is aptly named: Audience members will be asked to move around the venue throughout the performance to view the dance from various perspectives.  The result is that each member of the audience will leave having had a unique, individualized experience. Read more about past dance events here.

Day Eight. Friday Nov. 8

VISITING ARTIST WORKSHOP: HELEN OTTERSON. I’ve been dying to walk across the river to Harvard’s brand new Ceramics Studio on Western Ave., and this event provides the perfect opportunity. Artist Helen Otterson will be giving a presentation on her works of sculpture, which combine ceramics and glass casting. Otterson’s sculptures are inspired by succulent plants of the dry California landscape. Helen’s lecture will be followed by a demonstration of glass casting.

Day Nine. Saturday Nov. 9

IGNITING INNOVATION SUMMIT. Harvard’s Social Innovation Collaborative will hold their annual conference on social entrepreneurship from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday in the Northwest Building. The day is jam packed with key note speakers, TED talks, discussion panels, and skill-development workshops. For students emerging from college into a world in which social entrepreneurship and culture are joining forces to sustain and support the arts, this conference could be an invaluable learning opportunity.

Day Ten. Sunday Nov. 10

The Pirates of Penzance. I end this 10-day stretch with a bit of slapstick, musical comedy. Whether you’re a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado, a musical lover or just looking for a laugh, make your way to the Agassiz Theatre to see the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ rendition of the dynamic duo’s most famed work.

And one final note: This is a 10-day map. But the arts don’t stop with 10 events or in 10 days. They are ongoing. Make the Harvard Arts Calendar of Events your go-to place for arts news, and sign up for the OFA e-newsletter The Beat, which delivers arts highlights to your inbox each week.

The moments of “Antigonick”

October 30th, 2013 No comments

Antigonick, directed by Ianthe Demos, the artistic director of One Year Lease, is poet Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’ classic tragedy. Demos is currently in residency as this year’s Visiting Director, a program sponsored by both the Office for the Arts and American Repertory Theater. I spoke with David Manella ’14, one of the producers of Antigonick, as well as Demos, about their thoughts on the rehearsal process, production intentions and audience takeaway.

On the new translation:

Ianthe Demos:

Anne Carson’s version is a translation, not an adaptation. She does remain very true to the original text in so many ways, although it is severely cut down. She hasn’t adapted any of the storyline. The chorus is even the same, but she has paraphrased it at times and greatly shortened it. I think what’s so interesting for me about her is that she is both telling us the story of Antigone and commenting on it from a modern perspective. One of the notions that the script, for me, revolves around is this idea of a “nick of time.” Potentially, do we have the chance to change these events in a single moment? I think Carson says we do, although at the same time, it’s pretty adamant that we never would.

David Manella:

Anne Carson is very interested in efficiency of language. The language used is very different and self-referential. It has a more contemporary and poetic tone. It is much more sparse: Carson will take a single passage of Sophocles’ text and convert it to a word. Carson is interested in themes of familial and societal decay and destruction. She shows this by adding a literary device in the form of a character called Nick. Nick is onstage the entire time measuring the action of the play. She is discovering those points of time when a character makes a decision or goes down a path that then becomes irreversible towards the destruction we see at the end of the play. In Carson’s version, the audience is cast in the role of Nick.

On the rehearsal process:

Demos:

It’s a very open rehearsal room, but it’s also geared towards the final product. It’s an interesting mix of keeping the room open to new ideas, and also picking and choosing through those ideas. There’s a selection process that’s happening as the ideas flow into the room. The focus gets sharper as we keep going because we start speaking the same language. I knew I wanted to explore Greek dancing, painting, lacrosse and sports. It is a very open process in the beginning couple of weeks. We have a sense of the ideas we want to explore, but where they’ll take us is unknown.

Manella:

Ianthe comes from a background of very experimental and movement-based work. She does not believe in coming into the rehearsal room on the first day with this single-vision for staging in mind, and then impose that on the cast. Her method of staging is not only to bring her own thoughts of the piece, but also use the actors and their unique tones and abilities to craft a new understanding of the piece to then revise the staging as the cast and crew’s understanding of the text develops. They use a lot of movement-based exercises in the beginning to develop a stylistic tone for each of their characters. They spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room just discussing the text and to develop their own meaning of it. I think it’s been a really special process for the cast to do something entirely new than what is normally done by Harvard student directors, and I think it just brought to them a new perspective on the rehearsal process. It can be much more dynamic than just learning staging from a single scene.

On audience reception:

Ianthe Demos

Demos:

I hope audiences will see this ancient story as a story throughout time, that we are Read more…

Traveling to Alcott’s Concord with “Little Women”

October 28th, 2013 No comments

Louisa May Alcott‘s Little Women is a classic novel about New England girlhood during Civil War years. The book is a perennial favorite – it’s one of the top 100 novels for children –  which is likely the reason composer Jason Howland, lyricist Mindi Dickstein and writer Allan Knee adapted it as a Broadway musical in 2005 . The Harvard cast has been busily rehearsing the show all semester, and the creative team recently had the chance to deepen its understanding of the text and setting in a unique manner. By visiting Orchard House in Concord, Mass., where the author’s family lived from 1858 until 1977 (and where she wrote and set the original story), the cast and crew were able to make connections to their work in concrete ways. We asked the actors playing Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – the famous March sisters – to tell us about the experience of going to the “family home.” Little Women opens Thursday, Oct. 31 and runs through Saturday, Nov. 9 in Farkas Hall.

Did visiting the house change the way you see your character?

Page Axelson, Salem State University (Amy): “Absolutely. Before visiting the house, I felt very little connection to Amy. That changed when I went to Concord. Standing in her room and seeing her pencil drawings all over the walls made me feel very close to her. I feel a kinship with my character more than ever before. Visiting the house was a unique opportunity for us as actors. How often to you get to be that close to someone you’re portraying in a show?”

How else have you researched the show and your role?

Tess Davison ’16 (Meg): “I read the abridged version of Little Women in my 6th grade English class. When I found out that the show was going to be put on here at Harvard, my mom suggested that we both read the original version to get more acquainted with the story and the characters.”

What moments came to life for you when you visited the house?

Olivia Miller ’16 (Beth): “The skits and stories Jo writes in the musicals concerning Rodrigo are some of the liveliest and most playful parts of the musical. Seeing the actual costume trunk, hat and boots that Louisa used to reenact the character from her fantasies was amazing.”

How do you approach playing a well-known character from such a beloved story?

Taylor Kay Phillips ’15 (Jo): “Jo is such a beloved character because so many young, ambitious girls relate to her story. The big difference between Jo and me is that Jo is never embarrassed. She’s so focused and passionate that she doesn’t have time to be self-conscious. Rather than trying to ‘be Jo’ or ‘act like Jo,’ I always go back to asking, ‘What does Jo want?’ and ‘How would I get it if I weren’t embarrassed?’ Jo never considers the possibility of failure – and that’s why she’s such an appealing character, because being fearless and being unique are her virtues.”

Director Susanna Wolk ’14 on the rise of “Yellow Moon”

October 10th, 2013 No comments
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In the spirit of Bonnie and Clyde with two teenage runaways involved in murder, theft and deceit, Yellow Moon: The Ballad of Leila and Lee is an encounter with memory, story-making and storytelling. Yellow Moon director Susanna Wolk ’14 spoke with me about her vision for the show. Performances run Oct. 10-12 at the Loeb Ex.

How does the use of the black box help shape a story in your show?
A black box like the Ex is so exciting to me because it creates a real intimacy with the audience that would be impossible to achieve in a proscenium space. That type of visceral connection is so important to Yellow Moon, since so much of the show is directly speaking to the audience with no set and almost no props. They can really imagine the physical world along with the actors. But more than that, having the spectators there, in such close proximity really adds urgency to the characters’ quest to turn memory into a story. The show is in the round, and we have three rows of seats including one row on the ground with blankets and pillows. There will be hot chocolate. I want it to be like sitting around a campfire and watching a story unfold. Read more…

Cesar Alvarez asks questions musicals (and songwriters) answer

October 8th, 2013 No comments

What stories need to be musicalized?

How do we make sure that every element of a song adds to the storytelling?

How do we get the music to answer the questions the lyrics ask?

What is the purpose of a hook?

Whenever our professor poses questions like these, I scribble frantically, rushing to write down the answers to these questions and a few fleeting thoughts on the answers before the inspiration leaves me. Visiting professor César Alvarez, a member of The Lisps and writer of Futurity, asks these questions to get me and 15 other students in Drama 169x: Emerging Musical Theater thinking innovatively about songwriting and storytelling in musical theater.

“This course is me sitting down and trying to put together a class about what I am most interested in,” says Alvarez.

César Alvarez (center) with Anise Molina '14 and Fiona Kyle ART/MXAT '14

I sit with him on the Science Center Plaza. He is in Cambridge on Mondays only  since he’s currently working on a production of The Good Person of Szechwan at the Public Theater in New York City.  We meet during his office hours prior to class. Construction noises and a theme from the musical Once being played on one of the pianos placed nearby by the Play Me I’m Yours project underscore our meeting.

“I’m interested in looking at the way musicals are built,” he says. “How does the changing musical landscape of the 21st century allow us to tell stories in a new and authentic, contemporary way?” I jot down this question. I am in the class, after all, and as an aspiring musical theater writer, it’s something to keep in mind. Read more…

Surrogate subjectivity with Radcliffe’s David Levine AM ’96

October 7th, 2013 No comments

David Levine PHOTO: Tony Rinaldo

David Levine, a Radcliffe Fellow in Visual Arts, creates interdisciplinary work with theater, psychology and video. Through his fellowship, Levine, AM ’96, is pursuing Character Analysis, an experiment in which volunteers are paired with actors over a period of three months so the actors can “acquire” the participants’ subjectivity. Levine is also a professor at the European College of Liberal Arts of Bard in Berlin, Germany. Levine’s work in the visual and performing arts exhibits internationally, from MASS MoCA to the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, Egypt. Levine and collaborator Marsha Ginsberg were awarded special citations at the 2013 Obies for their 2012 art theater project Habit. I sat down with Levine to discuss his experiment and its outcomes. The following, which is the first part of two posts on Levine’s work, is an edited and condensed interview. You can read the second post, with Lelaina Vogel ’15, a participant in the project, here.

What is Character Analysis?

Each actor gets a volunteer and they meet three times a week for three months, for roughly a 50-minute hour. Over that period the actor, in theory acquires the subjectivity of the person. They take all the skills they have as an actor and try to understand the character. It’s a portrait of the actors as much as it is a portrait of the volunteers. They get to send their surrogates out on a mission to do something on behalf of the original, or experience something on behalf of their original. Then they come back, in character, they’re interviewed, in character about how it felt, and then the original gets the video as a sort of document of what they experienced. One sent her surrogate to see The Donkey Show, because she never had time, but she was curious. One of them had Read more…

Adventures on the Mississippi

September 27th, 2013 No comments

Devi Lockwood ’14, an associate of Dudley House concentrating in Folklore and Mythology with a citation in Arabic, was awarded an Office for the Arts at Harvard/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to create a series of interlocking poems examining the folklore and stories associated with the southern Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans. Lockwood is a two-time recipient of a Carol K. Pforzheimer Student Fellowship (2011 and 2012) for projects exploring the works of female poets at the Schlesinger Library. Her work has been published in a number of publications including Tuesday Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, Awosting Alchemy, Verse Wisconsin, and others. She plans to pursue an MFA in poetry. She filed this post from Louisiana; read her first post from Provincetown here.

A short story:

Earlier today I stood not ten feet away from an adult Bengal tiger. And I know what you’re thinking—this is not my real life on the Mississippi version of Life of Pi.

Devi Lockwood

I took a water break from riding my bicycle at the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete, Louisiana near the intersection with Highway 10. The place has continuously owned tigers for the last goodness-knows-how-many years and now there is a Louisiana state court case about it that might go to the Supreme Court that pits an animal rights activist who is protesting the tiger’s exposure to diesel fumes against the store and its clientele. There was a shirt inside for sale that said “tigers eat animal rights activists for breakfast” (more at www.savetony.com). There’s a poem in here, I know it.

I would say that every day on this bike trip is an adventure, but it’s really more like every hour. Tonight I am staying with a wonderful Cajun family in Grosse Tete, Louisiana—somehow I have had the luck of meeting such great people Read more…

The arts of the Nieman Foundation at 75

September 26th, 2013 No comments

Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, one of the oldest and most prestigious study programs for members of the media, turns 75 during this academic year. More than 1,400 journalists from 92 countries and territories have taken a year to exhale, explore, expand their horizons at the Walter Lippmann House on Francis Avenue, where the foundation is located. In 2008, under the leadership of then curator Bob Giles, the foundation established a special fellowship for an arts and culture reporter to be a part of the class each year. Ann Marie Lipinski, the current curator and host to a heady three-day celebration that kicks off Friday, Sept. 27, has added the A&C slot to the regular lineup of beat reporters accepted into each class, which this year includes NPR’s Alison MacAdam who is studying the intersection of  arts with business, law and technological innovation, as well as the ways cultural institutions are preparing for the future. We asked Lipinski about the role of A&C journalists for the fellowship and for the larger dialogue in the media.

Each year, the Nieman Foundation includes an arts and culture fellow. Why is it important to have this voice in the mix of the Nieman class?
One of the strengths of the Nieman class every year is the rich range of experience and knowledge that each fellow brings to the fellowship. Just as in a newsroom, that diversity of perspective is important to our understanding of the world and how things work. This past fellowship year, we were fortunate to have three extraordinarily accomplished arts journalists – an architecture critic, a book review editor, and a food and restaurant critic. Buildings, books, food – they’re every bit as fundamental as politics or government or, sadly, war reporting, and when you gather people of tremendous skill in each of these areas there is a kind of learning that takes place that elevates them all. Read more…