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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…

Finding his “Way” in Cambridge

September 20th, 2013 No comments

Bill Rauch ’84 PHOTO: Oregon Shakespeare Festival

When Bill Rauch ’84 talks about his Harvard years, you can hear the gratitude and affection in his voice, see it in his smile. While he was at the college, he found his career, his husband and his first company. And his passion for embedding theater artists and projects in communities. Back then, American Repertory Theater was just getting started, and theater was a heady experience at the college. You can see the origins of his theater philosophy in this Crimson interview from 1984, when he was about to launch his career.

Rauch opened a production of Robert Schenkkan‘s All the Way on Sept. 19 at A.R.T. The play is about the early days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and stars Bryan Cranston (of AMC Breaking Bad fame) as LBJ.

“When I started as a freshman at Harvard, Bill was kind of a legend,” says A.R.T. artistic director and producer Diane Paulus ’88. “When I started my first theater, I wrote to Bill, and he shared advice and encouragement. Now we have a very strong relationship as colleagues, as fellow artistic directors. It has been a dream of mine to bring him back to the A.R.T., back to his stomping grounds here at Harvard. We have been talking for years about various projects, and then the stars aligned with this bracing new play.”

Just shy of 30 years after graduation, Rauch, who is artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sat with a handful of Harvard arts students at the Office for the Arts to talk about a life in the arts, his years on campus and All the Way. “When people wait for opportunities to come to them, it breaks my heart,” Rauch told the students. “I’m a really big believer in make the work. Just make the work. And don’t wait for people to hand you things. Don’t think they owe you anything. Get out there and do it. The secret is: Take whatever coal they dump on your head and feed it into the engine to make the work stronger. How are you going to make a difference? How are you doing to make the world a better place? Those are the big questions. So go for it. Follow your dreams.”

The week before the show opened, I met up with Rauch to talk about his time at Harvard — past and present.

How did you get your start at Harvard?
I came here wanting to be an actor. I acted in a play in the Loeb-Ex my freshman year, and I had a passion to direct. I applied for and got a slot for spring semester. And that was it. I joke that I’m going to spend the rest of my career trying to direct with the pure instincts I had that first time. Read more…

A place for poetry

Devi Lockwood ’14, an associate of Dudley House concentrating in Folklore and Mythology with a citation in Arabic, was awarded

"Immersing myself in the totality of this beautiful place" (photo by Devi Lockwood).

an Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA)/Office of Postgraduate and National 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. UPDATE below.

Greetings from Provincetown! I’m finishing out a fantastic, week-long poetry workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center with Gail Mazur. Gail is a Boston native with an impeccable sense for the musicality of words. She, along with a multi-generational room of classmates, have pushed me to grow this week. I’m embracing capitalization and the music of punctuation, a step in the right direction for me. The class has met every day for three hours in the afternoon, leaving lots of time for writing, exploration, and more writing. We also had an opportunity to give a public reading on the last Thursday of class. Read more…

Building creative capacity: Arts education in the 21st century (Part 2)

July 17th, 2013 No comments

Several months ago, four students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) deliberated how to advance education from a passive institution to a driving force that develops essential learning and life skills. Brought together from four countries by Harvard, the role of art in each of their personal narratives inspired them to choose art as the agent of change. They formed Creative Capacities International, using music, dance, spoken word poetry, and visual arts to teach critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and creativity. From an idea in a classroom in Cambridge, they have recently brought the transformative power of the arts to the remote foothills of the Himalayas and dirt-floored classrooms on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. This is the second post in a four-part series on arts education.

By Terryl Dozier, Ed.M. ’12

There is a fascinating phenomenon that occurs when you give youth a pen, microphone and an ear, and tell them, “What you have to say is life-saving.” Somewhere between fervently scribbling metaphors and shouting over the deafening silence of an awaiting audience, a student creates “impact.”

Enter Me. I was once that student. A student voted “Most Quiet,” who passed through high school with the burden of wanting to say everything I didn’t know how to express—until a teacher, interested in a few of my thoughts, mandated a poem and gave me an audience. I wrote “Who I Be,” a simple composition questioning the stereotypes surrounding the intersection of race, socioeconomics and geography. Yet it wasn’t until a year later, when a noticeably shy underclassman mustered the courage to walk up to me and say, “I began writing because of you” that I learned the value of my words and myself. Read more…

Building creative capacity: Arts education in the 21st century (Part 1)

July 12th, 2013 No comments

Several months ago, four students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education deliberated how to advance education from a passive institution to a driving force that develops essential learning and life skills. Brought together from four countries by Harvard, the role of art in each of their personal narratives inspired them to choose art as the agent of change. They formed Creative Capacities International, using music, dance, spoken word poetry, and visual arts to teach critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and creativity. From an idea in a classroom in Cambridge, they have recently brought the transformative power of the arts to the remote foothills of the Himalayas and dirt-floored classrooms on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. This is the first post in a four-part series on arts education.

By Jingqiu Guan, Ed.M. ’12

Bouncing in a hot dusty bus on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica, little did I know my life was about to change. In the intimacy of navigating a foreign country and sharing adventures and mishaps, I told a fellow student and new friend, Shua, how I had given up a fully funded MFA program in dance performance to complete a M.Ed. program in International Education Policy at Harvard, and my chagrin at giving up one passion in order to pursue the other.

Jingqiu Guan (center top) with her students.

Dancing had shaped who I was, both outwardly and inwardly. It taught me perseverance, confidence and expression as I strove to consistently improve. I practiced problem-solving through choreography and teamwork in performances. I knew how dance how changed my life, but not yet how it could be used to change others’ lives.

As our bus wove through small herds of goats and over rubble, our lives began to intertwine. Shua told me how teaching visual art in Ghana had transformed the way she viewed the potential impact of the arts. Terryl, another student, overheard our conversation and joined in, sharing how he had used literary art to give low-income urban youth in the U.S. a voice. We had all experienced the transformative power of the arts. We began to talk, to dream and eventually to take action. Read more…

A date at the White House

July 8th, 2013 No comments

Harvard Arts Blog is pleased to recognize several alums, honorary alums and faculty who are recipients of the 2012 National Humanities Medal, announced by the White House on July 3. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will present the Medals, which are managed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, at a ceremony in the East Room on Wednesday, July 10.

The humanities honors will be presented in conjunction with the National Medal of Arts managed by the National Endowment for the Arts, whose recipients include singer Renée Fleming, who has conducted master classes at Harvard under the auspices of the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program; and playwright Tony Kushner, who has also participated in Learning From Performers and delivered the Tanner Lectures at Harvard in 2008.

Recipients of the Humanities Medal with ties to Harvard include:

Jill Ker Conway

Jill Ker Conway AM ’63 and PhD ’69, “for her contributions as a historian and trailblazing academic leader. Dr. Conway has inspired generations of scholars, and her studies of exceptional and empowered women have revealed a common drive that unites women across the globe—to create, to lead, and to excel.” Conway was Smith College‘s first female president (1975-1985) and is currently a visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Natalie Zemon Davis AM ’50 and Honorary Degree ’96, “for her insights into the study of history and her exacting eloquence in bringing the past into focus. With vivid description and exhaustive research, her works allow us to experience life through our ancestors’ eyes and to engage truly with our history.” Davis is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto; among her many books is The Return of Martin Guerre (1983).

Joan Didion, Honorary Degree ’09, “for her mastery of style in writing. Exploring the culture around us and exposing the depths of sorrow, Ms. Didion has produced works of startling honesty and fierce intellect, rendered personal stories universal, and illuminated the seemingly peripheral details that are central to our lives.” Didion is Read more…

NYT editor and Nieman fellow Jennifer B. McDonald ’13: Gesturing toward criticism

May 2nd, 2013 No comments

Jennifer B. McDonald PHOTO: Brent McDonald

Guest blogger Jennifer B. McDonald is a 2013 Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and an editor at The New York Times Book Review. She joined The Times as an editor on the national desk in 2005 and was previously an editor at The Washington Post and at CNET News.com in San Francisco. Before becoming a journalist, she danced ballet for 13 years.

I’d like to begin this item with a list, followed by a confession.

The list: Addison, Adorno, Barthes, Bell, Benjamin, Brooks, Burke, Cixous, Coleridge, Derrida, Emerson, Foucault, Freud, Frye, Gilbert & Gubar, Goethe, Greenberg, Hazlitt, Hegel, Horace, Howe, Hume, James, Kant, Keats, Lacan, Lessing, Longinus, Macdonald, Nietzsche, Pater, Plato, Ransom, Richards, Rosenberg, Sartre, Saussure, Shklovsky, Sidney, Shelley, Staël, Trilling (Diana), Trilling (Lionel), Wellek & Warren, Wimsatt & Beardsley, Wordsworth.

The confession: Before my year as a Nieman fellow at Harvard, I’d had little to no exposure to the critical work of these authors. Yet when I arrived here, people insisted on calling me a “critic.” Ann Marie Lipinski, the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, called me a critic. My fellow fellows, journalists from all over the world, called me a critic. It was odd, because throughout my career, including my five years at The New York Times Book Review, I’d thought of myself as an editor and a journalist — and, yes, an avid reader of literature — but almost never as a critic. Did these people, relative strangers, know something about me that I didn’t?

When I applied for the fellowship, I proposed a course of study — literature, philosophy, psychology, poetry, history and rhetoric — that I now recognize as an attempt to assuage the anxiety provoked by the “critic” label. In a year at Harvard, I dreamed, I would do some serious educational gap-filling and emerge a bright, shiny new ball of knowledge, a highly calibrated critical machine. Voilà!

During the final round of interviews, one of my interrogators told me my plan was ridiculously ambitious. You’d need at least six years to get through this, he said. He was right, of course.

In 10 months, I ended up accomplishing something much more modest: I spent a lot of time thinking about the way I think.

Worried over labels, I kept coming back to questions: How does a person become a critic? What does a critic need to know? What should a critic read? How should a critic read? What and how should I read if I’m ever going to live up to the word that keeps getting assigned, inexplicably, to me?

So it was that I landed in Literary Criticism: Major Approaches, a course taught last fall by James Engell. I knew I’d be reading major critical essays by many of the writers listed above. What I didn’t anticipate was that Engell would utter two sentences with the power to resonate far beyond this year: “Criticism is not, ultimately, something one does. It gestures toward who one is.”

Suddenly, the mode of inquiry shifted. It was not only about what and how, but also who and why: Who am I? Why do I think the way I do? How do I come across, in life and on the page? What do people read in my gestures, why do they read them this way, and is this the person I want them to see?

It strikes me that “criticism,” in Engell’s statement, can be replaced by any other form of art and still make sense: Writing … gestures toward who one is. Dancing … gestures toward who one is. Painting … gestures toward who one is. The playing of music … gestures toward who one is. The “who” behind the “something one does” is what makes the “something” original. To me (and here I cop to my own biases, formed through my experience as a dancer), the “who” is what turns the “something” — the dance, the music, the writing — into “something interesting.”

In the past few months I’ve read critics who regard their work as science, not art. I’ve encountered artists who believe in depersonalizing art, in erasing from the picture the subjective “who,” the mysterious “why.” The opportunity to argue with these people, across the seminar table or across page and time, has been one of the great gifts of this year. I leave with a reading list significantly longer than the one I brought in (demonstrating the wonderful paradox of education: the more you learn, the more you know you don’t know). By continuing to grapple with these writers’ methods, I hope to inch closer to a critical approach that makes sense to me.

For now, the approach I admire embraces the idea that the critic, like everyone else — student, teacher, reporter, editor, dancer, musician, author — is forever a work in progress. If that’s what my Nieman colleagues meant when they started calling me a critic? I’ll take it.