This blog has entirely morphed into “Jason talks about theater” it appears.
I’m going to be directing another show! I’m heading up the Millennium Repertory Company’s production of Little Shop of Horrors. We open in late January, so rehearsals and such will be over the holiday season. I’ve got an amazing cast:
The biggest challenge for this show? The puppets. Look for a lot of build pics over on Mastodon or PixelFed.
As major Sweeney fan, I was really looking forward to hearing the full orchestration for the first time (26 piece orchestra!), and it didn’t disappoint…although I do prefer a bit more bombast with my Sweeney than we get with Alex Lackamoire’s conducting. The score is almost subtle in places where I didn’t expect, and it took me by surprise at times with how quiet it was.
I’m also an outlier in that I really love the steam whistle/punctuation of the score and action, and having that missing was a small personal disappointment. I know not all productions include it, but I prefer it.
The set maintains the two levels traditional to Sweeney, but does so with a movable bridge that spans the entire width of the stage. I enjoyed the staging with the bridge, although I think that would be dependent on where you were sitting. We were lucky in that we had front row, front mezzanine, maybe the best seats in the house for this particular show. No issue with sight lines, nothing breaking up the view, extremely close to the action.
Sweeney is also a show that relies on some special effects, and here this production didn’t disappoint. No red cloth or light effects for these kills, no….here we had blood, and lots of it, freely flowing. The mechanism of the effect was clever as well, with piping/bladder around the neck of Sweeney’s barber towels that was activated as each throat was slit. His “diabolical chair” was also in full effect, dumping his victims down into the basement below…even if “below” was actually stage left. My only disappointment was that there weren’t quite enough kills, as during “Johanna” the normal litany of walk-in customers that Mr. T unceremoniously offs was only three, which felt like maybe not quite enough for me.
Now…to the performances. True to form, Josh Groban as Sweeney Todd sings the part better than anyone I’ve heard. Not a note stretched or strained, nothing even remotely off, just beautiful and clean and clear baritone. He plays the part well, his interactions with Lovett are great (he’s the perfect straight-man for Annaleigh Ashford’s manic/obsessive Lovett). But I really do want my Sweeney to be at least a little scary, with some actual menace to him. When he addresses the audience in the song Epiphany, I want to feel it. He had a few moments of physicality when he came close, but just never really got all the way there. I want Sweeney to be a frightening figure, and I just don’t think that Groban ever quite got there.
With that said: he was fantastic. I would absolutely see it again, it’s just not exactly the Sweeney I would want to put on stage.
Annaleigh Ashford is the standout for this cast as Mrs. Lovett. A new take on the character, which is extremely hard to pull off successfully with a role this iconic. She was the high point of the show for me, funny and ascerbic, and her physicality in the show from the first few moments of her introduction sold me totally. She reinvents Lovett and I’m here for every second of it. She sings it wonderfully, but it’s her acting that sheds new light on Lovett and her obsession with Mr. T.
I was unimpressed with Jordan Fisher’s Antony…he was solid, and the things that I noticed (variable accent being the main) could easily be forgiven. Less easily forgiven is that the part had to be take down for him vocally, so we miss some of the higher notes that the part is written for, and that was a mild disappointment. Overall, solid but not special.
Gaten Matarazzo on the other hand was fantastic as Toby. He was absolutely able to pull off the part as written/sung, and his voice and take on the part were perfect. Watching him break down at the end, his interactions with Lovett, etc…just perfection. Really marvelous take on the role, and the other standout besides Ashford. This is the second time I’ve seen him on a Broadway stage, the first in the New York City Center production of Parade from fall 2022. He’s fantastic on stage.
Other members of the cast that were real standouts were Maria Bilbao as Johanna, John Rapson as Beadle Bamford, and Nicholas Christopher as Pirelli. I have basically never seen a Johanna that I thought carried the role well, and Bilbao was just perfect both vocally and in character work. Rapson and Christopher were equally committed to the characters, and handled the outsized personalities with aplomb.
Overall, it’s a fantastic production. Is it my personal perfect production of one of my favorite shows? No, it isn’t, but it’s going to please a ton of people.
I also stage-doored the performance, and the cast was incredibly generous with their time and effort. All the mains came out and signed everything the crowd asked them to, and most of the cast was willing to talk and take pictures as well. Just so, so generous after what must be an exhausting show. I was able to get everyone to sign my window card, which will take a place of honor on my wall as soon as a frame arrives.
Tennessee legislators in the State Senate have voted to move forward SB 0003, a bill which will criminalize performance in drag. The bill is not particularly long nor difficult to understand, so I’m going to include the relevant bits here:
SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 7-51-1401, is amended by adding the following language as a new subdivision:
"Adult cabaret performance" means a performance in a location other than an adult cabaret that features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration;
SECTION 2. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 7-51-1407, is amended by adding the following language as a new subsection:
(1) It is an offense for a person to engage in an adult cabaret performance:
(A) On public property; or
(B) In a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.
(2) Notwithstanding § 7-51-1406, this subsection (c) expressly:
(A) Preempts an ordinance, regulation, restriction, or license that was lawfully adopted or issued by a political subdivision prior to the effective date of this act that is in conflict with this subsection (c); and
(B) Prevents or preempts a political subdivision from enacting and enforcing in the future other ordinances, regulations, restrictions, or licenses that are in conflict with this subsection (c).
(3) A first offense for a violation of subdivision (c)(1) is a Class A misdemeanor, and a second or subsequent such offense is a Class E felony.
SECTION 3. This act takes effect July 1, 2023, the public welfare requiring it, and applies to prohibited conduct occurring on or after that date.
How many plays and musicals are going to be outlawed due to the insane TN legislature? It’s obvious that the law is designed specifically to target the drag and trans communities (because of course it is), and I’m absolutely in opposition to it solely for that reason. However, I have another reason to be wary of this law…I’m curious how many prior restraint first amendment issues there will be in non-profit community theater.
I’m on the Board of Directors of a community theater here in middle TN. Could I lobby for the theater to perform Rent without fearing for the safety of our actors and the organization? La cage aux folles? White freaking Christmas? Twelfth Night? Rocky Horror? The list of theater that includes dressing across gender identity is very, very deep, and the lines of “prurient interest” are notoriously fuzzy. What about casting women as men when there aren’t enough men who audition?
In my production of Cabaret last year, there was an obviously prurient dance number with a male-presenting member of the cast dressed in a drindl with some frilly panties dancing in ways that were intentionally obscene. Could I put that on stage now? Could the non-profit organization allow the risk of that being on their stage?
Hey lawyer pals: is there a prior restraint 1st Amendment case here?
Also, TN citizens…elect better people, and tell the Governor to veto this bill.
Now that I’ve almost entirely removed myself from Twitter, I’m looking around at how to…well, do whatever it is I want to do now. I’m definitely going to stick to Mastodon for awhile, and now I’m playing around with adding this old blog to ActivityPub and auto-posting to my Mastodon when I write here.
I’m hoping this incentivizes me to do more of that writing here, and less in platforms that I don’t own or control. To that end, I’ve installed ActivityPub here on the blog to give me a fediverse end-point, and will be thinking about what other ways/things to incorporate. I’ve got a BookWyrm account that I’ve only sort-of used, but maybe I’ll take a look at incorporating it as well.
Any suggestions as to what I should play with in the fediverse these days?
This past weekend, we had the amazing chance to see the New York City Center production of Parade. I knew the plot of the show, but had never heard the music prior to going in Saturday evening and finding our seats. We knew we were in for something special…this was a fundraiser, the show is scheduled to run only 6 days and stars Ben Platt, features Gaten Materazzo of Stranger Things fame, and has an absolutely mind-blowing cast. The show was also garnering rave reviews, and it seemed certain to be something we wouldn’t forget.
Days later, I’m still thinking about it. Some of that is the sound, the sheer overwhelming emotion drawn out by a fully-orchestrated New York show conducted by Jason Robert Brown himself. Some of it are the voices, the power and beauty and pain that was on display by the entire cast (when the full-cast harmony kicks in during “Old Red Hills of Home” I dare the hairs on your arms not to stand at attention). Standouts include Michaela Diamond as Lucille Frank and Alex Joseph Grayson as Jim Conley, the latter of which got the longest and largest ovation of the night for his jaw dropping That’s What He Said.
But no, the reason I’m still rolling this show around in my head is the story and the way it’s told. The story of Parade is the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man in Georgia in the early 1900s who was accused of the murder of a 13 year old girl at the pencil factory he managed, and was ultimately convicted and sentenced to be hung. When the governor interceded to commute his sentence, he was dragged from prison by a group of men and lynched. As is the way of musicals, this story is also the story of racism, the story of the history of the South, the story of child labor and abuse, the story of the abuse of the power of the press, the power of politics, and the relationship between anti-semitism and broader racism in the South.
Told with a deft touch by Alfred Uhry (writer of the book of the musical which won the Tony in 1999) and Jason Robert Brown (who wrote the music and lyrics and won the Tony for Best Score), the show doesn’t pull punches in showing the horrors of the time.Nor does it in its portrayal of the villains of the piece that are all too familiar in the modern era: members of the press who are happy to lie if it sells papers, politicians who are happy to lie if it increases their ambitions, and the public who are willing to lie to protect themselves and their way of life. The victims? Minorities, both racial and religious, who challenge the status quo.
But there’s another layer to the show, a cultural one, especially for someone who has basically lived my whole life in the South. For all the cultural baggage that gives me, it was a truly surreal experience to see this show. The South, capital T capital S, is its own character here, in the form of Atlanta and Marietta Georgia. Alfred Uhry was born in Atlanta, which explains why so much of the show’s representation of the South felt so true. But the framing is such that it’s a continuously uncomfortable truth, the type of truth that makes you slightly embarrassed to admit, the type of truth that you really don’t like to look at too closely for fear that you may burn out your eyes. The type of truth that means that you don’t see the same way afterwards.
It’s no secret that my favorite type of theater are the shows that tear out your heart and leave it bleeding on the ground…not that I don’t enjoy happy shows, it’s just that they don’t change me in the same way. Give me Cabaret, Fun Home, Sweeney Todd, and Hadestown…and add to that list Parade. If this production gets moved to a Broadway run, if it has a cast album….just see it, listen to it. I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long time.
I sometimes describe myself as a ‘Maker’. In online parlance, that moniker places me in the realm of 3d printing, hobby electronics, laser cutting, and the like. That’s definitely true, and I do have and use those sorts of tools regularly for a variety of things, but my reason for using the term is more personal. For as long as I can remember, from the time I was 7 and discovered that with a small screwdriver I could take apart my GI Joe figures and put the head of one on the body of another, I’ve had the instinct to take the things inside my head and make them real. From radically customizing my toys as a kid, to learning computers and sitting for hours programming my Commodore 64 as a teen, to the early web of my 20’s (my first ‘real’ paying job after university was as a “webmaster”), there has always been this continued drive to imagine a thing, consider it inside my head, and then figure out how to instantiate it in the world so others could see it.
In another life, with a few different initial conditions, this might have driven me to be an engineer. With yet different conditions, maybe an artist. Over the course of my nearly 50 years I’ve scratched this itch through writing poetry and fiction, webpages, scholarly articles, two academic books, creating two different technology products (LibraryBox and Measure the Future), mucking about with Raspberry Pi’s and Arduino’s and software to make everything from halloween decorations to props for musical theater productions. In my “workshop” I’ve got a laser cutter, an electronic soldering station, more 3d printers than I’d like to admit, a wood lathe, and a variety of parts and pieces that would allow me at any time to spend a day building whatever pops into my head, and I have an Etsy store where I randomly add things that I think up.
Tonight, a totally different sort of Making comes into existence. Over the last 4 months, I’ve been spending my evenings working as a Director at the Manchester Arts Center in service of the Millennium Repertory Company’s production of the musical Cabaret. I could talk about Cabaret for hours (and, unsurprisingly, I have). It is my favorite musical, and one of my favorite pieces of art of all time. It is weird, and hard, and full of comedy and horror and sadness, and I love it to death. When given the opportunity to direct it, it was an almost overwhelming sense of “oh, yes…now I can finally get these images, this story, out of my head and into the world”. I had nearly the whole show fully formed inside my head from the very beginning, themes I wanted to work in, stagings for various bits, new ideas for how to handle specific scenes and character interactions.
The only problem? I had never directed before. In fact, I’ve never been on stage as an actor, either. I had worked many local theater production in all sorts of different technical roles, but if you wanna talk about imposter syndrome…I knew I had the show in my head, but whether I had any clue as to how to make it happen onstage remained to be seen. Compound this with continually second-guessing myself (I kept reflecting on the quote “grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man”) and knowing that I really hadn’t earned this role in the traditional ways and there has been lots of internal conflict and reflection over the last 16 weeks.
Tonight is opening night.
To see this show come together has been one of the best creative experiences of my life. The reasons are complicated, but mostly boil down to the fact that in almost all of my other “making” endeavors, it’s just me. I have the idea, learns the skills to make it happen, and then do it. That’s just not possible with a theater production, as it takes so, so many people to make it happen: the cast and their onstage talent, the production crew and their originality and creativity, the backstage crew and their logistics and planning, the tech crew and their knowledge and skills. In just this small community production there are over 30 people involved in putting this show together. None of my previous making involved anywhere near that number of creative partners, all of whom bring their own ideas and talents to things.
It may be a cliche to say that I learned more from all of these individuals than they learned from me, and it could never be more true. I am grateful beyond words for everyone that had a hand in making this real, and I’m going to miss creating with all of you like mad. These people have helped me bring together so many things to create what will ultimately be just five performances of the show, five opportunities for this thing that’s been inside my head for years to emerge into the world from the stage, full of light and sound and joy and sadness.
Tonight is opening night.
It’s nerve-wracking and exciting to anticipate how the audience might react, what sort of feedback we might have. It’s a hard, emotional, edgy show, and I’ve chosen to incorporate modern fascist imagery and video into it in ways that could be extremely controversial. Doing this show here, in Middle Tennessee? As far as we can tell, Cabaret is the first show on this stage to have a same-sex kiss on it…much less a song about threesomes and choreography to match. Between the sexuality and the critique of right-wing extremism, the show doesn’t pull any punches. But the theater that I love is the stuff that takes your heart bodily out of your chest, makes it hard to breathe, and then stomps in flat before returning it to you. So that’s what I’ve tried to create.
As of today, we’re in Day 10 of quarantine, and Day 7 of isolation.
On Sunday, August 8, after having sinus issues for a few days that we thought were allergies, Eliza tested positive for COVID-19. We were surprised, as she’s fully vaccinated and we know the stats on breakthrough…nonetheless, she ended up being in the very low percentage of fully vaccinated positive cases. Her symptoms were mild, mainly fatigue and sinus issues, and she slept basically the entire day Monday and Tuesday. By Wednesday she was feeling much better, and she’s now outside of her 10 day quarantine window and has returned to normal activities.
However, on that same Wednesday, Betsy tested positive. Also fully vaccinated, it’s clear we should be buying lottery tickets. With that we went into slightly higher isolation mode, separating everyone and masking at all times indoors, and Betsy went into hard isolation in our bedroom…since that day, we’ve been separated. Betsy has been living entirely in the bedroom, having everything delivered to her and then left outside the door again to be decontaminated.
Her first few days were…bad. Horrid body aches, extreme, crippling fatigue, sinus pressure. She said it felt like the worst flu ever, just awful tiring pain for hours. On Saturday she lost all smell, and taste soon followed. She’s in day 7 of isolation now, and still has mild sinus symptoms, although the worst of the aches and fatigue seem to be past her. The lack of smell and taste may hang on for weeks, we’ve read. She will, most likely, be fine after a few more days.
I’ve been sleeping on an air mattress in my office, raising up my standing desk to make room. Thus far, I’m negative. I’m testing every 2-3 days, just in case, but so far have managed to avoid enough viral load for it to take hold.
The health department here in Franklin County tells me they don’t have any way to know if it’s Delta…in fact, when we initially called to report the positives from home tests, we were told they didn’t have any mechanism for putting them into their system, since the reports weren’t coming from a lab. But given that we have 2 breakthrough cases, and we know of a handful of others in the same cluster as Eliza’s, there’s certainly a chance that it’s a variant.
The last 2 weeks have been…stressful. Even though I trust the science, and I know the chances of complications for someone vaccinated is very small, I was still worried. First for Eliza, with all we don’t really know or understand of long COVID effects, and then Betsy. If either of them weren’t vaccinated? I’d have lost my mind with worry. As it is, these are lost weeks, impossible to concentrate, unable to focus because there’s things to do and I’m the only healthy one in the house, consumed with constant background concern about what if and might and could.
Eliza was alone in her room for the last week of summer.
Betsy is remote for almost two weeks of the start of school at the University, and she’s missed orientation, welcoming students, and so much more.
Where I live is in the center of the lies and disbelief about the pandemic. The vaccination rate in Franklin County, TN is under 40%, and cases are skyrocketing. Masking is seen as a partisan issue instead of being a basic public health tenet, and arguments against masking are heard constantly.
Nothing will ever get better unless we mask and vaccinate. We will never, ever beat this virus, it will out-mutate “natural immunity”, we will see more and more contagious variants, and we will still be watching people die by the hundreds of thousands years from now. The only chance we have is to control the spread of it, to choke off its supply of hosts and starve it to death. We do that through universal masking…not forever, just until vaccination rates are up and we limit transmission of the virus to small isolated groups. If you remove the fuel, the fire will go out.
For a virus, fuel is new hosts. If it cannot find new hosts, it will die. And the two best ways we have to prevent it from finding new cells to invade is universal masking and vaccination.
No one wants the world we have now. But we don’t get to have a different one until we destroy this disease. To anyone who is hesitant about the vaccine, or is fighting against masking….please, help us stop this disease. If we don’t act now, and fast, the rest of 2021 is going to be a worse bloodbath than 2020.
Here’s a presentation I delivered this summer on the near-future of AI and Machine Learning systems and services for the 2021 IDEA Institute on Artificial Intelligence. I discuss how ML systems “create” things, two types of ML systems that are popular right now (CLIP and GAN), how they might be used in the information world, and what sorts of things I continue to worry about as these systems become more prevalent.
A few weeks ago, my workhorse of a 2012 Honda Civic was viciously attacked by a deer on a dark road.
It was (and still is overall) a great car…it was purchased just before I started work at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as an academic librarian, because I needed the highest mileage vehicle I could find. After nearly 180K miles, it’s still running like a top. But the deer slammed into the driver’s side door at full speed absolutely destroyed the door, broke the outside handle, and bent the door frame away just enough to be annoying. After getting an estimate from a body shop that was 40% of the value of the car, it looked like maybe it made more sense for me to look around at a “new” car for myself.
In 2021, what’s that look like? I started with the presupposition that I’d prefer to buy an electric vehicle, at a minimum a hybrid, but that it didn’t make sense to get a fully internal combustion engine (ICE) car for the sort of driving I do at this moment in time. Most of my driving is inside a 90 mile range of Middle TN/AL/GA, and doesn’t involve hours and hours on the road at a time. After looking around at options in EVs, it was quickly apparent that there weren’t a ton of choices right now, and that also there would be a metric ton of choices in the next 2 years.
Everyone knows Tesla, and as much as I love their technology and they are still the clear leader in EVs in the US, they are out of my price range and I’m largely annoyed by the cult of personality that seem to follow them. After reading and watching a LOT of reviews of the non-Tesla options, I was very intrigued by the Chevrolet Bolt EV. Less expensive, good size, and with enough range that I never really have to think about it (250 miles on a full charge), the Bolt fit in the sweet spot for me.
Once I’d narrowed the search that far, I discovered that it was a VERY opportune time to be shopping for a Bolt. With enormous dealer incentives, external incentives (Costco had a $3K member incentive to purchase one), and the fact that it was the end of the quarter and the beginning of the 2022 season for cars, with new models expected to start arriving over the next few weeks, dealers were very eager to make sales and get the existing cars off their lots.
So I bought one.
What’s Electric Like?
I had ridden in electric cars before this, having had the opportunity at CES in Vegas some time back to attend a press demo of electric vehicles and ride in a whole bunch of early versions. Obviously I’d done a ton of reading about the differences between EV and ICE vehicles as far as driving them goes. But after a week of this being my daily driver, I just gotta say that this car is fun as hell to drive.
Super peppy, corners like a boss, power exactly when you want it, and nearly silent otherwise, this thing is a blast. It has great sound, Apple CarPlay, a ton of safety features that my previous car didn’t have (lane warnings, 360 camera, camera rear view) that make it just easier to relax while driving. It’s fun in a way that no car I’ve ever driven is, and it doesn’t hurt that I feels a little like I’m piloting a spaceship.
But What About Charging?
With a 250 mile range at full charge, I can go nearly a whole week without really stressing about charging. Right now, there’s a few options for me when I need to charge, though. The first is that the Bolt comes with what’s called a Level 1 charger that is effectively a fancy extension cord for a standard 120v outlet. This is the slowest of all possible options, as there’s not a lot of oomph in a standard US 120v outlet. Plugged in this way, the car will gain about 4 miles of range every hour that it’s plugged in. If you plug it in overnight for say, 10 hours, you can bet on roughly 40 miles of range being added to your battery.
My plan is to eventually install a Level 2 charger here at home, which uses 240v outlets similar to an electric dryer. With one of those, I can add 25 miles of range for every hour spent charging, and so can top the entire battery up overnight whenever needed. This will cost me a couple hundred dollars for an electrician to install, and will be well worth it long term (and has a tax incentive attached to it that allows you to claim 30% of the cost as a write-off).
In my immediate area, I have a handful of charging options not at my house. The town next door to me (10 min drive) has free Level 2 charging at their municipal building, where I could park and charge for free if needed. A town slightly farther away (30 min) but where I spend 3-5 nights a week because of various classes and rehearsals has a commercial DC Fast Charger station (Electrify America) which is the most expensive but also fastest way to charge your car…with it, you can add 100 miles of range in about 30 minutes. The charge for that charger is .16/minute, so for under $5 I can add 100 miles of range anytime I have a few minutes after dropping my kid off at dance class.
I’m thrilled, so far. Cautiously so, because this seems too good to be true and I’m sure the cruel hand of fate is waiting to smite me because if 2020 taught us anything it taught us not to assume good things about the world.
This thing is super fun, charging it requires a little forethought but is really not that big a deal, and I live in an incredibly rural area without a ton of infrastructure for EVs. I expect that will improve over time, and my experience on that front will get better and better, and people in more dense population centers will have an even easier time.
A few months ago, I was asked to fill in and present at the virtual Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian conference on the topic of Artificial Intelligence. The description for the presentation was already written and published, and I was asked whether I wanted to step in and create a presentation based around it. That description was:
Should face recognition change the way we interact with our customers? What if, for example, I can greet a person by using their last name as soon as he/she gets to the lobby because I have an iPad that will immediately show me the customer’s name, reservation, or even current fees? What near-future technologies will be enabled by AI, and which of them will be useful to libraries? Join us and learn how to make decisions about the good and bad aspects of AI technologies.
When I initially read this description, my first thought was “Say What?”. Given what we know about the realities of the racist and sexist inequities built into facial recognition, it seemed extremely odd to me to suggest libraries should be using it.
So, I decided to make that thought explicit, and the result is this presentation.
Below you’ll find video of my talk, as well as the PDF of my slides. If you’d like to download the slides, you can do so here.