31 August 2013

Pulling Wagons and Playing in Sand

My mother moved about 10 months ago and I went to help her.  I actually arrived on the day she vacated her old apartment, the day before her possessions were loaded into her new one, so I wasn’t around for the packing up.  It ultimately took longer than we ever anticipated to complete the move (though part of that was because Mother had an accident which injured her leg).  As a result, we unpacked boxes and moved furniture around for weeks, putting away papers, family mementoes, and keepsakes along with the clothes, shoes, and kitchenware.  One or two boxes Mom kept aside for me to look through contained old letters, other documents, and photos going back not only to my childhood and my brother’s, but other family members’ including both of my parents’.  (As I’m sure you all know from your own experiences with this sort of activity, sifting through a couple of boxes like that takes days.  Aside from the sheer nostalgia those kinds of things evoke—one photo showed four members of my mother’s side of my family, sitting in descending generational order on the steps of my grandfather’s summer house in Deal, New Jersey: my mom’s grandfather, her mother, my mom, and, standing with Mom’s support, me at about a year old.  (There are two versions of that snapshot, but they are among the only pictures I have of my great-grandfather.  I don’t even remember him except from those old pictures—and my mother’s anecdotes.)

Among the photos, which went as far back as my mother’s and father’s early years and as far into the near present as snaps of me with the first dog I got after leaving the army and moving to New York City, were a couple of dozen letters, some from or to my grandfather from before I was born and some from my folks and me to him from the years my parents, brother, and I lived in Germany.  There were also a dozen or so various documents, such as birth certificates (my mother’s, my father’s, my brother’s, and mine), awards, certificates, diplomas, my dad’s Foreign Service application forms and supporting papers—and several report cards from my brother’s and my pre-grade school years!  Of all the old pix and papers, it was those ancient school reports that most fascinated me.  The other papers all contained interesting information, but those mimeographed forms seemed to tell a whole little story I was too young to remember more than just vaguely.  I don’t know if I can convey that fascination—maybe it’ll turn out to be one of those kinds of things that only works for me and no one else; maybe I won’t be able to articulate the feelings and, yes, amusement, I got from looking at those old reports.  I’ll try, though.  See if you can travel along with me on this little nostalgic jaunt.  (Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear . . . .)

First, they aren’t actually report cards.  The printed cards, a bifold document of stiff stock containing four pages to be filled out by our teachers several times a year for each grade, didn’t start until first grade, I think.  These reports are on regular letter-sized mimeo paper, typed and duplicated for the teachers to fill out on one side of each sheet, and stapled together.  Second, I don’t have a whole set for either my younger brother or me.  In fact, I only have three, one for me and two for my brother.  They cover the years 1951 and 1954-55.  I wonder how much has changed in the field of pre-school education in the ensuing 60 years or so.

Specifically what I’ve got is a “Developmental Record” for me in nursery school in 1951, filled out in February and May, when I was four years old, and two “Transition Reports” for my brother, one of which is dated 1954-1955 when he was five to six years old (and I was seven to eight).  (I believe both of my brother’s reports were from the same academic year, though the second one isn’t dated.  I know it’s the second one because he was an inch-and-an-eighth taller and three-quarters of a pound heavier than at the time of the other report.  “Transition,” as I’ll explain momentarily, was a grade between Kindergarten and first grade.)

I’m sure my folks kept all our report cards, along with other markers of growing up.  (There are lots of those yearly school photo portraits all over the apartment, some even framed!)  I once found a box my father had kept—he didn’t like people to know he was sentimental that way—in which there were stashed not only letters from me from high school and college, but papers I’d written and even some newspaper clippings from The Stars and Stripes I must have sent him when I was in the army.  But we moved a number of times over the decades and things obviously got lost in the shifts and these three reports seem to be all that’s left now.  That’s okay, because this isn’t about bragging over my good marks before Kindergarten and first grade; it’s about what the schools deemed significant to report on back in the middle of the last century.

When both my brother, who’s 25 months younger than I am, and I were ready to start school, my folks enrolled us in the nursery program of the National Child Research Center in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  Founded in 1927 with a grant from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, NCRC still operates a pre-school on Highland Place, the building, purchased in 1930, where I spent the school years of 1950-52 (and my brother followed in 1952-54).  As the school’s name implies, NCRC’s plan was the “implementation of appropriate cutting edge research” combined with “a curriculum rooted in early childhood development.”  I don’t remember feeling it back in those days—and I do have memories of National Child Research, as we called it (well, not I, of course, but the grown-ups)—but apparently we kids were all guinea pigs of a sort.  It wasn’t just “play school,” I guess—though the school’s current website does say it was “inspired by the playfulness of young children.”  (Okay, I confess.  I remember playing as well as going to a swimming pool and doing other pleasure activities.  Maybe someone was taking notes!)   I have no idea why my parents selected National Child Research for us, though I suspect there was some investigation on their part—and since my brother went to NCRC after me, my folks must have been happy with the treatment and the results.  Who knows, maybe I got a leg up. Of course, I had nothing to compare it to—and at three to five, all I knew was that it was school; I only remember that it was all right and I mostly liked it there.

Whether NCRC gave us that “leg up” or not, I have no idea, but our next stop was the well-known and highly-regarded Sidwell Friends School on Wisconsin Avenue in Tenleytown, not far from Cleveland Park.  (By this time in our lives, my family lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where we moved just before the birth of my baby brother.)  This is the Quaker private school, established in 1883, where the children of presidents, vice presidents, and diplomats go.  Chelsea Clinton went there and Melia and Sasha Obama go there now; when I was a student at Sidwell, Tricia and Julie Nixon were schoolmates and among my classmates were the grandson of General George Patton and the sons of the ambassadors from India and Cuba under Fulgencio Batista (that was in the auspicious year of 1958-59, by the way).  I stayed there through eighth grade, the end of Middle School, when I went off to prep school in New Jersey in ninth grade and then to Switzerland for my junior and senior years of high school.  (My dad had joined the U.S. Foreign Service and, accompanied by my mom, was assigned to our consulate and then embassy in West Germany.  I’ve written some about this experience from my own perspective, most recently in “An American Teen In Germany,” 9 and 12 March.  My brother went to boarding school in 8th grade because of our parents’ departure.)  Before we could get to Middle School, though, we had to get into Lower School and Sidwell had a very strict policy for first grade: as I recall it, pupils had to be six years old by 1 September to start first grade.  Both my brother and I were still five when our first years at Sidwell started.  (My birthday is in late December and my brother’s is in late January.) 

Because this situation was not uncommon at Sidwell, however, the school had a remedy at hand.  Transition.  That’s what the one-year interim grade between Kindergarten and first grade was called then; I don’t think it even exists anymore.  (Sidwell’s website shows that five-year-olds go to Kindergarten now and the school offers a Pre-K class for four-year-olds.)  So I spent the school year of 1952-53 in Transition, as it were, and my brother did the same thing in 1954-55.  Because of that extra grade, I’ve always been one of the oldest students in my class, right up to college.  (In Transition we did first-grade work anyway . . . and then in first grade, we did second-grade work, and so on up the academic ladder.  As a result, I was not only several months older than most of my classmates in high school and college, but in ninth grade, I’d already done most of the work they were just starting.  This isn’t the place to get into this, but I got a damn good foundation at Sidwell, a combination of the first-rate academics provided and a curriculum that was a year ahead of most of my peers.  That extra year may have helped, too.)

NCRC is considered one of the premier pre-schools of Washington and Sidwell Friends has a nationwide reputation for both academic excellence and social progressiveness.  So it’s probably fair to assume that the points on which these two schools evaluated and assessed their pupils in the 1950s were deemed at the time to be important milestones of development and progress.  That’s why I found the categories listed in the report forms for both schools surprising and even amusing.  Of course, I have no background or experience in child psychology or elementary education—so what do I know, right?  Let’s have a look and see what teachers, administrators, educational experts, and parents found revealing at top schools in the United States in the middle of the 20th century.

Let’s start with the earliest grade, my nursery school report.  (I’m going to stick to the names the classes were called back in the period about which I’m writing.  If it makes you feel better, translate them mentally into the terms schools use today.  Knock yourselves out!)  Look, for the first point, at the activities I used for the title to this rumination.  Under “Physical Play” (a serious enough subject in itself), a subcategory of “Activities,” I was evaluated for how well—that is, in relation to my chronological age (3-4, you’ll remember)—I pulled wagons.  Apparently I was behind my age group for this, in both “interest” and “skill.”  I’m having a hard time envisioning what that means for pulling wagons.  I can understand not having much interest in pulling wagons—the little red-enameled, metal ones, I presume—even though I had one at home sometime around those years.  I suppose I just wasn’t all that thrilled with pulling wagons—but how do you assess that in terms of age-appropriateness?  I won’t even get into what it means that I was below my age group in the skill necessary to pull wagons.  It’s too shameful!

In the same main section, under “Constructive Play,” is a line to evaluate how I played in sand.  (I did better at this—above my age group.  I guess at four, I was more adept at constructive activities than purely physical ones.  I’m not sure that turned out to be accurate later.)  Now, here’s an overall question that comes to mind: while we were all playing in sand and pulling wagons (or not)—was someone out on the playground with us taking notes?  Well, maybe she was just observing carefully and made her notes later: Little Ricky (yep, that who I was back then—just like the Ricardos’ kid two years later) played in sand better today—but he isn’t pulling wagons as well as he should.  My image now is a team of young women, maybe wearing gloves and little pillbox hats like respectable women did in the early ’50s, sitting strategically around the playground watching their specific charges over steno pads through horn-rimmed glasses, frequently writing notations and then returning to scrutinize their little subjects.  We all thought we were just out playing—little did we know we were all being . . . DUM-da-DUM-dum . . . ASSESSED!  (I feel my development being retroactively stunted.  A delayed response to the observer effect, perhaps.)

Also under “Physical Play” came lines to judge “Carried or pushes large toys and furniture,” “Rides wheel toys,” and “Uses climbing frame, bars and walking boards.”  Now, I can make a good guess what “wheel toys” are and I assume a “climbing frame” and “bars” are some kind of jungle gym or monkey bars, but what’s with the carrying and pushing furniture?  I get pushing large toys, but did we also move the tables and chairs around from time to time?  (Once in a much later grade, the teacher told us she wanted to use the blackboard at the back of the room and asked for suggestions for rearranging the classroom so we could do that.  We all drew up plans, but I had the winning layout: I suggested simply turning the desks 180 degrees around to face the other end of the room—the simplest solution is usually the best one, after all!—but we kids didn’t actually move the furniture ourselves.  The building staff did that while we were home.)

The rest of this category consisted of simple activities like jumping, sliding, skipping, and so on.  (That image of a staffer taking notes is getting really silly at this point!  Ricky has improved greatly in his hopping.)  My best activity in “Physical Play” was running.  I suppose there’s some significance in that—I imagine the NCR people found some—but I can’t guess what it is.  In “Constructive Play,” after “Plays in sand,” I did best at “Uses puzzles, peg boards, nested blocks, etc.” but I was also judged on “Builds with blocks” and “Strings beads.” 

In the subcategory of “The Arts,” by which NCR apparently meant the visual arts (there were separate sections for music and “dramatic play,” among other performing and literary arts), the section in which I did best overall (is that surprising, looking back?), I topped out in “Models with clay” and “Uses pencils.”  (I presume I used the pencils to draw with, not poke my friends with.  The report doesn’t specify, though.)  I also did pretty well with “Pastes” and “Finger paints,” but I didn’t fall below my age standards in any category, including “Paints,” “Cuts with scissors,” and “Draws with crayons.”  (A budding artist, you might think.  Well, not so much.  I dabbled briefly with visual arts as a ’tween, but I never took it seriously—except much later as a consumer.)  In later sections, like “dramatizes music” (under “Interpretation” in the “Music” heading) and “Dramatizes” in “Stories and Poems,” I was no better than average for my age.  But when it came to “Imitative and dramatic play,” I scored almost entirely above my age group in categories like “Plays with dolls” (!), “Plays with housekeeping toys,” “Plays with trucks, cars, trains, boats, etc.,” and “Dramatizes adult activities: e.g., engineer, conductor, etc.”  (Thank goodness the report included those explanatory illustrations.  My imagination was running away with me!  I was having visions of the Page school in Auntie Mame.  Remember “Fish Families”?)  One category the teacher apparently had no opportunity to observe for me, more’s the pity, was “Likes to ‘dress up.’”  I wonder how I’d have done. 

(By the way, we did have dolls in our house when I was little, but they weren’t playthings for me or my brother.  I don’t have a sister.  My mom’s father made them—he had a doll company—so we had an attic stacked with boxed dolls as gifts for female cousins and the daughters of family friends.  Now, both my brother and I played with stuffed animals when we were little, but our most consuming play activity in those years was making “set-ups.”  There were basically two kinds, one starting with a set like Robin Hood or Fort Apache that our parent’s bought and which we’d soon hybridize by combining with anything, whether superficially appropriate or not, we could add to expand the basic set with more little figures or set pieces for our impromptu dramas.  It wouldn’t have been unusual to see Camelot knights or cowboys in the same set-up as Robin Hood’s Merry Men or Erector Set pieces at Fort Apache.  Uniformity of size didn’t matter any more than consistency in historical period or fabrication did.  The other type of set-up was more ad hoc: we’d build an environment outdoors somewhere—usually in our yard, but not always—with roads, ramps, hills, and so on, even buildings either borrowed from the store-bought sets or improvised from whatever materials were at hand, and play at logging, mining, building, using toy cars, trucks, cranes, steam shovels, and bulldozers, just as often mismatched as the figures in the indoor set-ups were.  (Nellybelle, the Jeep from Roy Rogers, was as likely to show up as the construction vehicles were!)  If there was building going on anywhere nearby, especially on our property, the sand piles made excellent foundations for set-ups!  Hey, some of this does line up, doesn’t it?)

Actually, the criteria in many of the next categories make perfect sense—the kinds of things I’d expect teachers to evaluate for pre-schoolers: how well I did in various aspects of music, including singing on pitch and knowing the words, keeping a rhythm; looking at and talking about books (no reading yet, though) and pictures; listening to and “originating” (not “writing,” you notice—I was still pre-literate) poems and stories; and several items focusing on nature.  Many of these last sections weren’t observable; I guess we didn’t have plants or flowers in our classroom, though the teacher could tell I “liked and was interested in” animals (I don’t think we had our first dog at home yet, however), “collected” “soils, rocks and minerals” and “noticed differences in size, consistency, color, etc.,” and was “interested and observant of weather conditions.”  There is one category in which I was judged but which totally confounds me: I was apparently at the appropriate level for my age for “observing” and “participating” in something called “Finger Plays.”  I have no idea what finger plays are!  (I can guess, but I have no recollection of such an activity.  As I said: no background in child psych or early ed.)

By the time the report gets to the end of the Activities section, covering such measurements as my aptitude with numbers, forms, colors, and speech and language (in all of which I was mostly above my age group), the criteria for assessment seem obvious: counting, distinguishing forms, knowing colors, vocabulary extent and use, ability to communicate, enunciation.  They all seemed standard bases for judging development of a three- to four-year-old.  I can’t imagine pre-schools don’t measure children’s progress in those fields today in pretty much the same way now as they did 60 years ago.  In the section called “Routines,” though, we return to the realm of . . . well, let’s call it “thought-provoking.”

Routines are the everyday tasks of living: dressing, using the bathroom, eating, and such.  It makes perfect sense to evaluate children’s developments in those areas, of course.  The mind boggles, however—or, at least, mine does—at the form’s criteria, or at least how they’re articulated.  We were judged on “Removes clothing at own age level,” for instance.  What could that possibly mean?  “Puts on clothing at own age level” is easier to imagine, but removing clothes seems pretty pro forma even for a three- to four-year-old.  How many ways are there to take off shoes, socks, and pants?  Trying to take the pants off over the shoes, I suppose . . . but that’s about all I can think of.  The same with “Gets clothing from locker at own age level”—again in contrast to “Puts clothing away at own age level”: putting the clothes away seems more complicated—there are more ways to do it—than retrieving them.(I was average or slightly above at these tasks.)  The same with “Assumes responsibility at own age level” for “Toileting”—which I assume means I didn’t . . . well, wait too long to see to it.  (Toileting?  Really?  Is that even a real word?)  By the way, the teacher had no opportunity to observe me for “Afternoon resting and sleeping.”  Too bad—I bet I’d have maxed that category.  I sure do well at it today!  It’s one of my best things.

“Eating,” though, was a different category in “Routines.”  I was adjudged pretty much average for “Appetite”—I guess I mostly cleaned my plate at lunch—and “Drinks milk readily.”  I was also in my age range for “Is reliable and independent”—though I can’t really picture what that would be.  I didn’t need someone to feed me?  The real surprise is “Cooperates in trying new foods”: I was a little above average in that.  It makes perfect sense, too.  My brother was a picky eater when we were little, but I was adventurous—and remained so through my teens into adulthood.  (But I do wonder what “new” foods I was offered at NCR.  I mean. I don’t imagine they had a gourmet chef in the lunchroom making duck à l’orange or sweetbreads.)  My mom likes to recount that she could almost always get me to eat something new if she gave it a strange, fancy name.  I ate snails—escargot or Schnecken (because I first had them in a German restaurant when my dad ordered them)—when I was pretty young.  (In the years we lived in Europe, one of the most fun parts of traveling around was trying the local foods and beverages—yes, including beer, wine, and liquor because, remember, there’s no drinking age in Europe except in the U.K.—wherever we went.  Our pre-dinner respite during our three-week drive around Spain, for instance, was usually fried calamari rings and some kind of sangria—we tried different recipes, including red wine, white wine, and brandy—preferably served on a deck, terrace, or balcony.)  Checking out various regional cuisines was—is, since I still love to do it—as much a part of my travel experiences as seeing historic and cultural sights.  So if I was a bit advanced in trying new foods at three or four, I guess it stuck. 

Sections A (“Activities”) and B (“Routines”) were evaluated according to the pupil’s age level: “Average for his chronological age,” “Below average,” or “Above average.”  (There were also entries for “No opportunity to observe” and “[A]ctivity is too advanced for the child at his present age level.”  I was apparently too young to be assessed for skipping to a musical rhythm—though I was average for my age at galloping in time to a musical beat.  Go know!  I was also too young to “beat a steady rhythm” on “Rhythm Instruments.”  To this day, I’m not fond of drumming; you don’t suppose . . .?)  In section C (“Social attitudes [sic] and Social Behavior”), the form changed.  Under each subject for evaluation, the teacher had a sort of multiple choice of three or four evaluations of my “attitude and behavior,” selected simply with a check mark. 

(A brief note about gender bias.  You will have noted, I imagine, that the NCR record form uses the masculine pronoun for all pupils.  Though NCRC was and is co-educational—there were girls in my classes—the form follows the practice common through most of the last century: using masculine pronouns to refer to people whose gender isn’t known.  I presume this practice will have changed in the ensuing decades, but rhetorical sexism wasn’t an issue in the 1950s.  You’ll see that I also occasionally refer to a pupil as “he” in what may seem to be the same practice.  In my case, however, I’m referring either to myself or my brother—two boys.  Don’t let it throw you.)

The categories in section C are all the kinds of areas I’d expect child-development experts to look at so they’re less amusing or surprising than sections A or B—but that doesn’t make them less interesting, especially to a non-expert like me.  The first three categories, for example, are “Self-Reliance” (criteria: “Marked initiative, enterprising,” “Initiates own activities,” and “Dependent on suggestion of others”; I was in the middle group), “Kindness” (“Unusually sympathetic, helpful, generous,” “Normally helpful, conscious of the needs of others,” “Aware of, but disregards the needs of others in his environment,” and “Unaware of the needs of others in his environment”; I was in the second group), and “Sense of humor” (“Spontaneous: eager to enjoy and share humorous situations,” “Sees humor in situation when attention called to it,” and “Slow in responding to humorous situations”’ I was in the first classification).  Now, that last category is a little ironic because I once had an acting teacher tell me in front of the class that I didn’t have a sense of humor.  (It’s been a continuing joke between me and some of my friends for years now.)  Other categories for judgment are “Attention,” “Group Play,” “Ability to play alone,” and “Response to authority.”  As I said, all the kinds of traits you’d expect child-development assessors to examine in a place called the National Child Research Center.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that 21st-century pre-schools use the same ones and pretty much the same criteria, even if the language might have changed in the last 60 years. 

By the way, that last category (“Response to authority”) was one of two where the teacher felt it was necessary to combine two criteria and make some hand-written adjustments on the evaluation form.  One interesting aspect of this category is that the evaluation would so depend on how the evaluator views the value of abiding by authorities.  In a country born out of resistance to authority, there’s an inherent streak of respect for people who stand up to bosses, establishmentarians, protectors of the system.  Whistleblowers, people who speak truth to power, individualists, and iconoclasts are heroes in our popular entertainment—even the outlaws in many cases (think of Jesse James or Butch and Sundance, perhaps even Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey in The Shield, and the current Ray Donovan).  At the time I’m writing this, the death of newswoman Helen Thomas is being mourned as the passing of a stand-up journalist who didn’t brook evasions from people in power (while at the same time, Edward Snowden, the NSA-leaker, is largely being vilified as a traitor—so there is a contradictory impulse at times).  So the first criterion in this category, “Reasonable,” can be seen as a true positive trait—which is how I suspect the NCR teachers saw it—or as a “go-along-to-get-along” cop-out.  I was adjudged “Usually cooperative, when unreasonable can be diverted,” then the teacher added “but” and checked the next line as well: “Resentful, negative, argumentative, etc.,” continuing in her own annotation: “at times.”  Could I have been cooperative when I thought the authority was right (as much as a three- or -four-year-old could make that judgment), but resistant when I felt the authority was wrong or unfair?  Remember, I came of age in the ’60s, the era of protests, demonstrations, and civil disobedience.  Maybe I just started early.  (I was actually suspended in high school because I flouted the authority of the autocratic headmaster-cum-school owner—who had a problem with American independence of thought, something in which my European schoolmates didn’t often engage.  When I got to college and the draft was looming, I decided to join the ROTC program because, among other reasons, I knew that as a private in the army, I’d always be on the edge of getting into trouble with the regimentation and strict authority.  I felt I’d be safer as an officer—and, after the fact, I think I was right.  Could any of this have been predicted from my behavior in nursery school?)

My brother’s Transition Report was somewhat different than my NCR Developmental Record.  In addition to the fact that it’s a different school and my brother was older at the time he was in Transition (5-6) than I was in nursery school (3-4), the Sidwell form is narrative instead of boxes to be filled in or checked off.  The two forms aren’t the same, either—perhaps Sidwell changed the format in mid-term—and the first term report is three pages long (one of which is just signatures) while the second term is only one.  (Because the Transition reports are for my brother and not me, I won’t be as forthcoming about the evaluations themselves.  I can reveal how well or poorly I did in school, but it’s not my place to do so for my brother.  I may have to reveal some results, however, in order to comment on the criteria since it’s all in prose.)

The first-semester Transition Report, dated only 1954-1955 at the top, is divided into major categories for evaluation.  First is “Physical Development,” which includes my brother’s height, weight, and attendance record.  It also includes the teacher’s assessment of his achievement in “Rest,” attesting to how well he kept quiet  and slept during, I presume, naptimes; and “Lunch,” which reports the pupil’s interest in food (confirming my brother was, as I said earlier, a fussy eater) and how readily he drank his milk.  This section also includes a report on the pupil’s “Motor Control” based, apparently, on his physical activity on the playground.  (The comments concerned my brother’s level of activeness and his use of “both large and small muscles.”)  Now, I’m sure that child-development experts will say that observations about how a pupil stays quiet, sleeps, eats, and drinks milk are significant markers in his growth—but that doesn’t keep it from being amusing when it appears in such serious tones on a school report.  Comedians for years have joked that “I flunked recess” or “Lunch was my best subject.”  Those were jokes and meant to be . . . well, flippant.  But it seems that at Sidwell Friends, it wasn’t far from the truth.  I mean, maybe no one could actually fail lunch or naptime, but he could do poorly.

The next category for assessment is “Social and Emotional Development,” clearly important areas of progress to be observed.  It includes the teacher’s judgment of my brother’s general personality and character, his relationship to adults as well as his classmates and peers, how he handles leadership, discipline, cooperation, kindness and consideration, and other inter-personal traits.  Once again, though some of the terminology may have changed over the years, I’d expect the focus of this aspect of a 21st-century report to be pretty much the same as my brother’s Transition Report in the mid-’50s.  The same’s true of the last evaluation section, “Mental Development.”  (The heading on the page is followed by two lines apparently intended to prompt the teacher to make some specific responses in her evaluations: “First Grade Preparation,” which the teacher, Ann W. Brooks, left blank, and “Kinaesthetic: Auditory, Visual, Language,” to which Brooks--possibly Miss Brooks?—responded in the main statement in the section.)

(A note about the use of the word “kinaesthetic” above.  I suspect it should have been “kinaesthetics,” which means the ability to feel the movements of your own limbs and body, but I’m not sure what the applicability is here.  Kinaesthetics—also spelled kinesthetics—has something to do with the ability to learn new tasks, usually physical rather than purely intellectual, such as touch-typing and driving a car.  Both of these require people to perform actions with their arms, hands, legs, or feet while watching something else: tapping the keys of the typewriter while looking at the notes being typed from or manipulating the pedals and the steering wheel of the car while watching the road ahead.  I’m not sure if the use on Sidwell’s report form has another application—in the areas of hearing, seeing, and speaking—and though I’m sure that watching how a child’s ability to become aware of the way his body parts function is important, I’d have thought this would be something of greater concern at a younger age than five or six, by which time I’d have figured any problems in that development would have become clear.)

Now, I’m going to break my self-imposed moratorium on repeating what Brooks says about my brother—because some if it’s just so damn cute!  For instance, she reports, “He has a good background of information about life around him, he has an excellent memory and will say ‘you can’t trick me.’”  I can just about hear him say something like that!  (Of course, when he’d say it to me, it wouldn’t have been in school, so he’d probably have been using . . . ummm, stronger terms, shall we say?)  Later, Brooks comments on my brother’s ability to observe things and his range of interests.  “Ricky has been a help to him and he will often say ‘Ricky told me that.’”  First of all, how come my brother gets his full name in the report, but I’m still “Ricky”?  He had a childhood nickname just like I did!  (I don’t remember Brooks, but she very likely had been my Transition teacher, too.)  Second, I sure don’t remember specifically helping my little brother, though maybe I did just in the course of things.  Third,  I’m surprised to read that he acknowledged it to his teacher, even in Transition.  In a very few years, you can be sure he’d never cop to getting any help from his older brother.  He was the original “Mother, please!  I’d rather do it myself” kid!

(Is anybody catching all these early TV and old movie refs?  The Lone Ranger, I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Auntie Mame, The Roy Rogers Show, Our Miss Brooks, an Anacin commercial?  They seem appropriate somehow.  But, then, I’m a geezer.)

The second-semester report starts with the same “Physical Development,” but leaves off the “Rest,” “Lunch,” and “Motor Control” entries.  The rest of the report is several paragraphs of prose.  Brooks mostly attests to my brother’s improvement over the previous term (covering the deficiencies she noted in his resting, drinking milk, and eating from the first semester).  In both the positive assessments and the recognition of weaknesses, the teacher uses the criteria I’d expect from a school: interactions with adults and other children, ability to understand and follow directions, following through with work, knowledge and use of facts, numbers, and words, facility with visual stimuli, and so on.  Of course, Brooks ends by recording that my brother had been a good student in Transition and predicting success in first grade.

And isn’t it wonderful to step back (to those thrilling days of yesteryear) when that was all that really mattered—doing well in first grade?  After being healthy, safe, and happy, that was the top of the list when you’re six or seven (or the parent of a six- or seven-year-old)—to “do good work in First Grade.”  Nothing else mattered, after all.  In a few years, things would begin to get complicated—the right friends, cool clothes, a cool hairstyle, the car your ’rents drove, which clique you belonged to; then all hell would break out: high school!  But for a while, it was enough to be good at first grade.

And it all started with running, jumping, skipping, and hopping.  Doesn’t it always?

26 August 2013

Ratner Museum

It’s been a long time since I wrote about an art exhibit as part of one of my periodic theater reports.  (I think the last one was on Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2012.)  The fact is that I hadn’t seen many shows in that time and none worth writing about.  Then last winter, my mother moved from the District into Montgomery County, Maryland, and we began to see notices occasionally for visits her new apartment building was arranging to a nearby art museum, the Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum.  I recognized the name because it came up when I did a little research into “The Mushroom House” in neighboring Glen Echo, about which I wrote for ROT in 2009.  (The house’s owners and renovators are associated with the museum.)  What I didn’t realize until Mother was more settled in and we began driving around the area to run regular errands was that the Ratner is right up the street from her new residence: both places are on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda.  The museum, 10001 Old Georgetown Road (at the corner of Lone Oak Drive, which is actually where the entrance is), is a half mile north of Maplewood Park Place, where Mom lives now.  (It’s walking distance, but, leaving aside my mother’s age, walking along OGR is inadvisable because the sidewalks are intermittent and the road’s very heavily trafficked.) 

Mother had been recovering from a medical procedure in June and was constrained to take it easy for a while and stick close to home, increasing her cruising range little by little.  After about a week of staying within her building, participating in the various activities and social events on home turf, she decided to venture a little further out.  The Ratner’s not open in Fridays or Saturdays, but when I found that it had hours on Sundays, we decided to make a visit on 23 June to check the place out and we drove up in the late afternoon for a short visit (the museum closes at 4:30 p.m. on Sundays, 4 on weekdays).  It turns out to be a pretty small museum, so that was plenty of time.

The Ratner, which charges no admission, is devoted to fostering love of the Old Testament through the graphic arts.  (Groups are free, too, but 12 or more require advanced reservations.  The museum also has special tours for children and encourages classes with teachers to participate in a “hands-on art project.”)  Founded in 2001 by cousins Dennis, a businessman, and Phillip Ratner, an artist, the $2 million, 7,000-square-foot museum is what Bill Broadway (yes, that’s his name—if his byline is to be believed) noted in the Washington Post is the fulfillment of a promise the cousins, who grew up in Northwest D.C. but now live in Bethesda, made each other as teens: if they each became successful in their chosen fields, “they would give something ‘smashing’ to the Washington community.”  The museum consists of three buildings of which one is Phillip Ratner’s studio and museum offices, and another is the Resource Center which houses the library, conference space, and the Treasury of Children's Literature & Art.  The largest building is the exhibit space, on two levels (with a somewhat pokey elevator for visitors who can’t manage stairs).  The Ratner plans to convert some of its property to outdoor exhibition space as well.

Dennis Ratner, now 69, is co-founder and CEO of Ratner Companies, headquartered in Vienna, Virginia.  The corporation operates Hair Cuttery, a 1,000-store chain of salons in 14 states and U.K. he started 40 years ago.  (He’s also a local philanthropist, especially for causes focusing on children and the Jewish community in the Capital area and nationally.) 

Phillip Ratner, 76, is an artist with an international rep whose work can be seen at the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Zoo, and other locations around the world.  At the Statue of Liberty, for instance, the artist has five secular-themed sculptures on display and 40 at Ellis Island.  Though the Ratner Museum is substantially devoted to Phillip Ratner’s work—sculptures, drawings, paintings, and graphics—it devotes considerable space to other artists, some of whose art is on permanent exhibit at the museum.  (Other exhibits, particularly in the ground floor gallery, feature local artists and change monthly.  The works on the ground floor are on non-biblical themes.  The main-floor gallery, however, is about to undergo an unspecified “format change” in the fall.)  The artist, who studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and American University in Washington, also taught art in the Capital area, including at D.C. high schools, for over 20 years. 

According to the Post’s Broadway, the Ratner is something of a rarity: it’s one of very few museums in the world which is dedicated to depicting figures from the Bible.  “The Bible is my passion,” said Phillip Ratner.  (Aside from the artworks, there are Bibles from around the world and across time in the museum’s collection.  The Ratner also offers evening Bible study programs using Phillip Ratner’s art and a “Children's biblical birthday party” which includes the creation of an art project by the birthday child.)  The center of the permanent collection is Phillip Ratner’s sculptures depicting various Old Testament stories such as Jonah and the Whale, Noah and the Ark, Jericho, David and Goliath.  Other pieces depict Genesis and the Tribes of Israel.  Known as Journey Through the Bible, this installation is a permanent exhibit of over 100 of Ratner’s sculptures and 50 wall hangings.  Behind Ratner’s sculptures on the second floor are paintings by the artist illustrating the Commandments and tenets of the Kabbalah. 

Also on exhibit in the second-floor gallery are biblically-themed works by other artists who are permanent exhibitors at the Ratner, though the pieces on display change regularly.  The works are in many media, including painting and drawing but also including tapestry, needlepoint, and other folk-inspired forms.  On the Sunday my mother and I drove up, the upstairs gallery was showing Poetic Rhythm (2-30 June), a collection of oils, acrylics, watercolors, mixed media works, and Chinese brush paintings by artists Geraldine Czajkowski (Grasonville, Md.), Claudette Downs (Alexandria, Va.), Freda Lee-McCann (Washington, D.C.), Bertrand Mao (Rockville, Md., via Jiangsu Province, China), Edith Sievers (Bethesda, Md.), Lynn Weiss (Glen Echo, Md.), and Connie Ward Woolard (Silver Spring, Md.)—of none of whom I’d ever heard. 

Downstairs, the exhibit was Silk Panels – By Members of Spin – Silk Painters International (2 May-29 July), works by Sande Anderson (Santa Fe, N.M.), Nadia Azumi (Rockville, Md.), Aileen Horn (Bethesda, Md.), Nandy King (St. Kitts), Doris Knape (Whittier, Calif.), Phillippa K. Lack (Cheyenne, Wyo.), Betty Lathrop (Dover, N.H.), Sharon Thomas (Bluffton, S.C.), Anderson Moore (Livermore, Colo.), Kaki Steward (Laguna Beach, Calif.), Don Baker (Dade City, Fla.), displayed in the museum’s Atrium.  Also on view in the main gallery are more of Phillip Ratner’s sculptures.  These aren’t on biblical subjects, but are devoted to literature: characters out of Shakespeare and Dante.

Phillip Ratner’s sculptures, elongated images reflecting the influence he attributes to Alberto Giacometti and El Greco, are earth-colored clay (Proform, an artificial medium) molded on a frame of welded and shaped steel rods; some pieces are painted with bright colors (Noah’s rainbow, Joseph’s many-colored coat).  Each piece stands about three or four feet tall, mounted on pedestals that put them at about eye level.  With 100 sculptures, some of which are fairly elaborate scenes, arranged around the perimeter of the moderate-sized gallery, the display gets a little crowded.  The art hung behind the sculpted pieces helps form the impression of a jumble of distracting images. 

Generally I found the Ratner Museum and its art unprepossessing.  The museum is more a curiosity than a treasure, the product of two guys with an obsession who got to see it turned into reality.  (The Ratners also have a Bible museum in Israel, the Israel Bible Museum of Be-er Sheva, so this isn’t their first venture into fulfilling their childhood dream.)  The changing art on display when Mom and I visited was entirely unimpressive.  (I reserve judgment on the Chinese brush paintings of Bertrand Mao because, almost lost among the modern Western art, it didn’t get the exposure that might have made it stand out.  It seemed an odd companion to the works of the artists that surrounded it.)  It all struck me as uninspired, the kind of work you see at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit here in New York City—little more than tourist art or airport art.  Mother and I had started upstairs and toured the main-floor gallery last, and we started out dutifully examining the works carefully—for about half a dozen canvases.  Then, losing interest fast, we moved more and more quickly around the room until we couldn’t fake it anymore.  None of the work made me want to come back for a midnight shopping trip, that’s for sure.  By the time we left, I couldn’t even remember what I’d seen!

Phillip Ratner’s work holds more interest, in my estimation, for its biblical illustration than its artistic distinction.  I can imagine that for children, telling the tales of the Old Testament through Ratner’s sculptures would be fun and provocative, but for an art enthusiast, the pieces don’t hold a lot of interest.  I went around the circle of the exhibit trying to guess which story was depicted before looking at the label.  That’s hardly how I respond to better art when I see a show.  I read somewhere that Ratner was advised on his approach to drawing and painting by a film animator and had begun by using some of the techniques used in creating animation “cels.”  I’d say that the artist’s sculpting came from the same impulse—to make a cartoon image of a Bible story, not so much an artistic impression of it, much less it’s meaning or impact.  A picture’s supposed to be worth a thousand words; Phillip Ratner reduced the words of the Old Testament to a simplistic caricature.

I wasn’t impressed.

[Originally, I wasn’t going to report on this museum visit.  The reason, obviously, was my final comment.  But the more I considered it, the more I felt that I should go on record about this odd little place.  The Ratner Museum isn’t my taste, clearly, but it is somebody’s.  There are a handful of “user reviews” on Internet travel sites that attest to that: many visitors enjoyed the art and the biblical depictions.  I think it depends on how you feel about the Hebrew Bible: “Mr. Ratner's sculptures depicting Biblical people and stories are amazing”; “Philip Ratner brushes off the beloved Old Testament characters and gives them a modern, sometimes whimsical, deeply symbolic, look that keeps you exploring the piece”; “[T]here is a joy and dynamic in his artworks that's infectuous [sic].”  The museum’s exhibits are listed in the Washington Post—and I presume other local outlets—but I found no reviews of them or the museum’s collections (meaning Phillip Ratner’s art) on the ‘Net.  The museum has a  website, http://www.ratnermuseum.org, which I found a little difficult to navigate, but it does contain information about contacting and visiting the museum.]


21 August 2013

'Romance' (2005)

[Having said my piece about “David Mamet on Acting & Directing” (16 August), I thought it would only be fair to post my 2005 report on the Atlantic Theater Company’s world première of the playwright’s Romance.  The play ran at ATC’s Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea from 1 March to 1 May 2005, garnering a nomination for the 2005 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play.  Larry Bryggman, one of the featured actors, was nominated for the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play; he also won the Richard Seff Award and the Obie Award for Performance.]

I saw Mamet’s Romance, a “world premiere,” at the Atlantic Theater Company, on 12 February [2005]. 

To start with, it’s a farce, including some slapstick moments.  And though parts of the play were very funny, they tended to be isolated instances with no apparent connection to anything thematic.  In fact, I couldn’t determine a point to the play at all; if Mamet was saying anything, I didn’t see it.  The thing is a silly riff on courtroom dramas—the characters, except one, have no names, only designations: The Prosecutor, The Defendant, and so on—interwoven with gay romance (I guess that’s where the title comes from) and the visit to the city by a Palestinian-Israeli peace delegation. 

The exact nature of the court case is never really clear, but the Defendant is questioned about a visit to Hawaii he may or may not have made and some notations in his agenda (diary/datebook).  Most of this, the bulk of the first act, is tedious, if silly, except that the Judge (Larry Bryggman) has hay fever and has taken some medication that makes him loopy.  He interrupts the proceedings, goes off on tangents, and starts irrelevant conversations—such as a recurring one about the parade celebrating the arrival of the peace delegation that has snarled traffic and caused the Judge to be late for court—as he gets loopier and loopier.  (He forgets if he took his pill, so he keeps taking more.)  This is the part that’s often funny—but to no avail, as far as I could see.  The Judge was very funny, indeed, but his humor wasn’t related to anything else going on—which was part of the joke: he’d go off on irrelevant side trips, like the difference between a chiropractor and a chiropodist.  (That joke came up several times.  The Judge found it hard to believe that someone would be paid for feeling people’s feet!  Very funny.  Not!)  I suppose you could make a funny little monologue out of the Judge’s lines, completely separate from the play.

The second scene of the first act is between the Defendant and the Defense Attorney in a conference room, where we learn that the former is Jewish (he’s the chiropractor, by the way) and that the latter is Episcopalian.  (One joke: An Episcopalian is a Catholic who drives a Volvo.  I don’t get why that’s funny—even if it were true.)  This leads to some derogatory name-calling (while the Bailiff is standing there, trying to take a lunch order!).  The Defendant demands that his lawyer lie in court for him.  (A lawyer who won’t lie?  What’s that about?)  This ultimately goes nowhere, except to initiate the mutual diatribes (which also don’t go anywhere).  Suddenly, the Defendant conceives of an idea to bring peace to the Middle East—if he can get out of court and get to the peace conference before it disbands.  We don’t really know what his plan is, but his lawyer sees it as a miracle and the two are back in league. 

The last scene in the act is between the Prosecutor back home and his gay lover.  It’s a domestic tiff, except that Bernard (the only character with a name) is a swishy young queen—and a domestic type from the same stereotype I gather, as the guys from the “reality” TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  (I’ve never actually seen that show, but I’ve heard about it enough to make a stab at the gist.)  He’s a sort of transgender Martha Stewart, I guess.  The Prosecutor (Bob Balaban) is a middle-aged conservative type—a miss-match for Bernard—and they break up.

All this is a sort of set up for act two.  Back in court, the Defense Attorney is moving to get the trial continued so his client can get to the peace delegates before they disperse and go home.  The Prosecutor objects, of course, but they don’t really seem to be on the same page.  The Judge is loopier than ever, of course—he’s gotten new medication, but he still can’t keep track of what he’s taken.  In this jumble of a scene, we learn that the Defendant wants to go to the conference so he can align the spines of the delegates and, thus, bring them back to bodily harmony, after which they will declare peace.  (How would that sit with the people back in the Middle East?!  All they all need is for their leaders’ spines to be aligned!)  Bernard shows up (in court, remember—he just walks in) and brings the domestic dispute into the proceedings.  A witness is on the stand—a Doctor—and, for reasons I’ve forgotten, he gets into a tussle with Bernard and they do slapstick falls all over the courtroom furniture.  (Somewhere along the line, some of the characters partly stripped; I think the Judge, because of the medications, had gotten overheated.)  I don’t know the point of having done this—it struck me as gratuitous—but it was well executed and pretty funny as a set piece.  Also in this mélange, everyone starts gratuitous confessions—most of which are irrelevant to the plot or even the court case (the actual subject of which we still don’t know); just “secrets” from their lives.  (There’s a whole bit with the Judge announcing that he’s actually Jewish because his father was Jewish.  The Defendant explains to him that unless his mother’s Jewish, he really isn’t.  The Judge is relieved.  This bit’s also supposed to be funny, though I don’t see the humor.)  Also, bits of the back-story come out—including the fact that Bernard had spent a vacation in Hawaii where he’d had a one-night stand with the Defendant.  (Remember the question that was before the Defendant when the play began?)  They had met in the same place the Prosecutor had met Bernard—at a leather goods counter at some store where Bernard works.  That’s when the Defendant had bought the agenda that had been in question in act one, and it suddenly explains the cryptic notations the Prosecutor had asked about and tried to interpret.  (In one instance, there had been a small sketch of a rabbit.  Bernard’s nickname is Bunny!  I actually saw this coming as soon as “Bunny” was introduced at the end of act one.)  I never figured out what all this had to do with the “case”—or the play in general.  At the end of the melee, we hear the sirens that announce the end of the conference as the delegates leave to go home. 

I realize that mostly what I’ve done is précis the plot here, which isn’t really a report on the production, but there wasn’t anything remarkable one way or the other about the acting, directing (by Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater), or design.  The performance was fine (especially Bryggman’s Judge), but Mamet’s text didn’t have anything to say—hence the emphasis on the story.  It was like a college skit—an adolescent take on a Saturday Night Live sketch (or is that redundant?) which went on way too long.  I didn’t find anything substantial in it—and neither did my friend Diana, who was with me.  (She made a trip to the bathroom after the show and said other audience members waiting there were saying the same sort of thing.)  It may be a mark of the problem I had with Romance that in the week or so after I saw it, I had forgotten many of the details of the performance.  (A lesson to write my report sooner after I see the show.)  [I finished this report on 22 February.]

I wonder if Mamet wrote Romance specifically so ATC could premiere it, maybe even under pressure from Neil Pepe.  Mamet’s a founder of the theater company, which has done Mamet plays before, but never a première.  If he didn’t have a play he really wanted to write, he might have just thrown something together to satisfy his friends, but without much commitment.  That’s a pure guess, of course.

The New York Times reviewed Romance on 2 March and for once, Ben Brantley and I agree on the outcome.  He found more significance in the play in terms of Mamet’s oeuvre than I did, but that’s the only real split between his opinion and mine.  [Back in 2005, I didn’t include the review round-up that’s part of my ROT performance reports now.]  The Times later announced that Romance was opening in London at the Almeida Theatre in September [2005].  I wondered if the London producers hadn’t seen the play here. 

Now, here’s a short quiz:  Name another play in which a major character is a chiropractor.  (Answer: It’s William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba.  “Doc”—Burt Lancaster in the 1952 film—was a chiropractor.  Remember now?)


16 August 2013

David Mamet On Acting & Directing

For a while I was on the mailing list for a magazine called LA Stage.  (I don’t know how I got on the list, but I certainly never paid for a subscription—it just came.  Subtitled “Southern California’s Performance Arts Magazine,” it was the house organ of the LA Stage Alliance; it’s now published on line as LA Stage Times at www.lastagetimes.com.)  In the January/February 2006 issue, there was an article by playwright David Mamet called “On Directing for the Stage.”  The writer, in California to direct the Los Angeles première of his 1999 play Boston Marriage, dismisses all theorists including Konstantin Stanislavsky (“useless gack”), Bertolt Brecht (“gibberish”), and Jerzy Grotowski.  (He acknowledges that at least Brecht and Stanislavsky were “great” directors because of their practical work, not their theoretical output).  And it’s not just all “them Reds” he disdains—Mamet also concludes that “a host of Americans” didn’t know what they were talking about regarding “the correct implementation of” Stanislavsky, Artaud, Grotowski, “and blah blah blah.”  In fact, he states that “most plays are better understood when they have not had a director.”  The thrust of his essay (shades of Susan Sontag) is that plays should not be directorially interpreted, but merely staged.  “I think directing is much the same as playwriting,” he writes; “that is, it’s telling a story.”  He ends his essay by quoting Stanislavsky: “Any director who does something ‘interesting’ with the text, doesn’t understand the text.”  (His practical advice, devoted to blocking, actually isn’t bad—as long as you’re working on a two-character scene from a realistic play on a proscenium stage.) 

Aside from sounding very much like the advice of a playwright who wants to assure that his text is the salient aspect of the production (I remember that this was the sense I got from Edward Albee’s direction of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway back in 1976), Mamet also seems as if he’s fed up with directors like Anne Bogart who just can’t ever leave a script alone, no matter what.  They just have to put their stamp on it, like her 1984 production of South Pacific set in an institution for emotionally disturbed war vets.  But if we follow Mamet’s advice exclusively—and he doesn’t make any provision for exceptions—we lose Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Charles Marowitz’s Hamlet, Orson Welles’s Julius Caesar, Andrei Serban’s Cherry Orchard, Richard Schechner’s Dionysius in 69 and Makbeth, the Wooster Group’s LSD (which would have pleased Arthur Miller if we had), and any number of other radical reinterpretations.  Bogart may be self-indulgent (I think she is), and so may many—even most—other “interpretive” directors.  But some, at least occasionally, show us something worthwhile and, at the very least, interesting.

Dramatist Mamet mimics derisively, “But, oh my goodness, has it not been said that the playwright is perhaps not the best interpreter of his own works?”  (Director Mamet then denies that he’s “interpreting” his plays when he directs them, he’s “merely staging” them.  I contend it’s the same thing, though as the writer of the script, he just doesn’t realize—or won’t admit—that’s what he’s doing.)  In True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, the playwright’s 1997 advice to actors, Mamet avers, “Most plays are better read than performed.  Why?  Because the feelings the play awakens as we read it are called forth by the truth of the uninflected interactions of the characters.”  (Never mind that we’re “directing” the play in our heads when we do that!)  When those interactions are staged (by actors, specifies Mamet; by directors, I contend he’d add), they become false because they’re no longer organic.  Leaving aside the false assumption that anything conceived by directors or actors (that is, anyone who isn’t the playwright) is inevitably untrue, not every writer’s characters’ actions are immediately clear to most of us simply upon reading the script.  Some, like Chekhov’s and Ibsen’s, are too complex to lend themselves to instant comprehension and others, like Brecht’s, are just obscure or ambiguous; both instances require someone to draw out the actions and feelings and translate them into stage behavior or the audience will be irretrievably confused.  I can’t conceive of a cast of even the most talented and perspicacious actors, each following her or his own instincts, managing a coherent production of Brecht or Ibsen without the coordinating hand of a director with a pretty solid understanding of those two writers’ proprietary styles.  (I hesitate to add—but I will anyway—that a coordinated staging of almost any playwright’s script would be impossible if the cast were permitted to follow their individual lights.  Can you picture it?)

My friend Kirk Woodward, a playwright and director himself (as well as an occasional actor and play reviewer), responded to Mamet’s staging ideas: “Mamet’s theory of acting and of directing are similar: ‘Just do it.’  That doesn’t really go very far, I don’t think.  ‘Merely staged’—who hasn’t tried it?  There are always choices to be made, and somebody makes them.”  (Kirk is the author of the ROT report on the Broadway production of Mamet’s play Race, 3 May 2010.)  Leaving aside the question of what “merely staged” even means, Kirk raises the issue of who gets to make those decisions.  In other words, Who’s in charge of the production, the playwright or the director?  The answer, of course, depends on where you stand—and the nature of each production as it unfolds in rehearsal.  The great Russian experimental director Vsevolod Meyerhold insisted that his first principle of theater was that the director is the author of the stage production.  (Meyerhold also declared, however, that “the art of the director is the art not of an executant, but of an author—so long as one has earned the right” [italics are mine].)

What the playwright believes is that “the good director . . . has the ability to recognize and improve spatial relationships between the actors so as to maximize, beat-by-beat, the play’s potential for the audience.”  (He explains that there’s “an actual, shimmering aura or some flipping thing that exists between two actors on stage” and that the “aware, or gifted, or practiced” director can “feel” it.  “Oh, bushwah,” he predicts we’ll moan—he dismisses the “suggestion”—but my response is more like ‘whaaa?’)  The rest of Mamet’s advice is based on the premise that all directors should do is refine the natural movements of the actors and leave everything else to the playwrights. (The writer limits this practice to blocking.  I’ve already cited his assessment of actors’ abilities to evoke emotion while developing their parts: “Why are these interactions so less moving when staged by actors?  Because they are no longer true.”)  Actors for Mamet, then, are a kind of higher-order Über-marionette: the director and the playwright don’t move them about the stage like programmed automatons—they are free to move around on their own—but woe betide any actors who fill out their roles with emotional content they’ve developed.  That’s the province of the writer alone, apparently.

I agree with Kirk’s take on Mamet’s acting and directing advice.  I see him mostly as a playwright who insists that his script be the center of every production.  I know he’s directed, especially film, though I don’t know if he’s ever acted (like, say, Sam Shepard—though Mamet does refer to himself as an actor in True and False), but I don’t see him as a director so much as a playwright who directs.  (ROT readers may know that I have problems with playwrights who direct their own work; generally I think it’s a terrible idea.)  Emily Mann is a director who writes plays; Albee, like Mamet, is a playwright who directs.  When they work on someone else’s scripts, they may be more than competent—I’ve never seen anything Albee has directed that wasn’t his own script—but when they do their own, they put all the emphasis on the text.  (I’m generalizing here and I realize that.  Brecht directed his own work, arguably more successfully than any other director who’s ventured his scripts, but Brecht was a theatrical genius and was inventing a wholly idiosyncratic style for which he wrote specifically.  Mann has also directed her own plays, but she was a trained and experienced director before she turned to playwriting.)  Acting and directing take second place, and are intended to serve the text.  I suppose that’s a legitimate take on the art of theater, but I don’t agree with it. 

A script is not a play, and a production is more than the script.  It’s a collaboration.  Avant-garde stage director Leonardo Shapiro would say it’s a “conversation.”  That may be an excuse for directors to run away with the script, “monopolizing the conversation,” as Kirk put it, but it’s not a valid excuse.  It’s also not a rationale that makes the script the dictator of the production.  (Antonin Artaud would wholeheartedly agree.  In fact, he did.  But, of course, Artaud was nuts.)  Mamet doesn’t appear to want to allow creative input from the director, actors, or designers.  I think that’s wrong philosophically, but I also think it’s self-destructive.  You can argue that Elia Kazan had too much influence on Tennessee Williams in production—as Williams eventually contended—but you can also see that directors like Kazan can bring scripts to life more vibrantly than a simple story-teller could, and more perhaps than the playwright even envisioned.  For all his complaints later in life, Anton Chekhov owed a great debt to Stanislavsky for reviving and reinvigorating The Seagull in Moscow in 1898 after it failed in St. Petersburg two years earlier.  What might the world have lost had Stanislavsky not brought his own sensitivities to Seagull and left the failure in St. Petersburg as the final word?  Or José Quintero’s resuscitation of Williams’s Summer and Smoke in 1952 after it had failed on Broadway four years before (taking Williams’s reputation with it). 

Maybe Kazan went too far by the time he got a hold of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and made Williams change the ending—hubris is a progressive disease—but he unquestionably nailed A Streetcar Named Desire and we know from the contemporaneous record that that was a collaboration.  (If nothing else, we owe him for the casting of Brando in the production—a gamble at the time by all accounts.  I think that counts, too.)  Eddie Dowling may have overstepped by making Williams remove all the Brechtian/Epic Theater elements from his script for The Glass Menagerie, though it’s also possible he was right to sense in 1944 that Broadway audiences weren’t quite ready for that yet, but by all accounts, he got a performance out of Laurette Taylor she shouldn’t have been able to give at that time.  Not only was she past her prime at almost 61—semi-retired for the previous seven years—but she died just over a year after the play opened.

There’s a constant argument regarding whether acting and directing are creative or interpretive arts.  To some, it’s a useless distinction, but Jack Bettenbender, the first director of the theater program at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, always came down on the side of interpretive—actors and directors were there only to serve the text.  Meyerhold proclaimed that, along with the author and the spectator, the director and the actor are the four “creators” of theater.  I’ve always maintained that actors and directors are creative artists because even when they are “merely” translating words-on-a-page into speech-and-actions-on-a-stage, they are creating—creating a character, a life, a world for (and Shapiro would add “with”) the audience.  You may have seen Hamlet dozens of times and know the play backward and forward, but a good actor, and especially a great one, will create a Hamlet that will make you say, “Man, this guy is Hamlet.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”  (My friend Kirk asserts that the “notion of ’creation’ Bettenbender was working with is ‘making something out of nothing.’  That doesn’t ever happen, except scripturally, with God, who in any case we’re not.  Everyone down here works with materials; everyone does things with them, some pedestrian, some terrific.”  Kirk asks, “Did Shakespeare ’interpret’ Hollinshed?”  Of course he did, in his turn—after Hollinshed “interpreted” history itself.)

I’m not fond of the creative-interpretive dichotomy either—but that’s the terminology used in the debate.  It’s like the question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays: it’s entirely academic.  In the real world of theater, directors and actors just do what they do.  You can label it anything you want and it won’t make any difference.  You can call it oobleck if you like, but it doesn’t change anything.  In any case, I deny there really is a conflict; but people like Bettenbender create one by asserting that actors and directors must be secondary to the script and, thus, merely “interpret” the playwright’s intentions. 

There’s also another point that Mamet doesn’t raise (but I have from time to time).  Even the wildest (mis)interpretation of a script doesn’t destroy the script.  It’s still there to remount in a less radical production.  It’s not, as someone pointed out, drawing a mustache on the “Mona Lisa.”  Further, even a failed experiment is often worth having made because we learn stuff from it even if the production doesn’t work.  As Kirk observes, “Sometimes a radical production may make the original more vivid, just by how much it departs from it.”  (That’s just the experience I had when I first saw Marowitz’s Hamlet collage in London in 1969.  Kirk saw Brook’s radical Midsummer in 1970 and I suspect he had similar feelings.)  Finally, it’s also important to note that the worst production in the world is still no crime against humanity.  My advice to Mamet?  Get over yourself! 

Mamet asserts that the best productions have been plays without directors.  He provides no examples to back up this pronouncement, though I suspect he’s referring to company-created performances.  Even so, I don’t accept his classification (“the best”), and I would add, perhaps ominously, that some have also been productions without playwrights.  (You hear that, David?  Be afraid . . . be very afraid!)  Kirk observes:

I know what actors do if they’re not trained to do otherwise: they form half-circles.  I suppose an argument might be made that actors would do fine by themselves if they were trained to do so—if they were trained in pictures, purposeful moves, etc.  Stanislavski-based training isn’t about that.  But I still don’t see why that kind of work would necessarily be better than director-based work—or, to put it better, why the best of actor-created staging would be better than the best of director-created staging.

In addition, if the actors are specifically trained to behave a certain way on stage, then they aren’t really “undirected,” are they?  They’ve essentially been “directed” by their teachers.  They also aren’t really behaving instinctively—they’re behaving according to training (or programming, if you wish).  “Habitual” isn’t the same as “instinctive” or “natural” (in the sense of “organic”).  If you’ve ever noticed the way dancers walk, even when they’re just walking down the sidewalk, you can see the results of training that has become habitual: they walk erect, with their necks held straight.  Their feet are turned out, just like when they’re on stage.  (I’m referring to ballet dancers; modern dancers and Fosse dancers have different postures.)  This is not natural, but the result of training and drill.  Actors trained to take stage in certain ways would be in the same dynamic, so that wouldn’t really support Mamet’s assertion. 

The playwright further contends that actors, left to their own devices, will naturally block themselves in appropriate and logical ways.  Kirk’s already remarked on what his experience shows about that claim; in my experience, actors who are undirected or unblocked will tend to do one of two things, depending on their personalities.  They will either find the most comfortable and safe spot to hang out in—mine was always the down-left corner of the stage, facing either up or right—or find a spot light and stand in it.  (If I didn’t have a hand prop, I’d also cup my left hand in my right and use my right thumb to rub the palm of my left hand.)  If a scene or speech is long, the undirected actor will either stand stock still or wander aimlessly.  Once, when I was doing some play or other at an Off-Off-Broadway theater, we had a director who for some reason refused to set any blocking.  After a couple of weeks of wandering around the stage in different, unplanned patterns at each rehearsal, the cast got together and blocked ourselves.  I can tell you, we felt a lot more secure and able to work on other matters after that.  We were “undirected” but, of course, we weren’t “unblocked” anymore—we had just done the task ourselves.

(I have already recounted the story of my first directing gig in New York, when I replaced a director fired by the cast.  They’d become so frustrated because the original director hadn’t given them any practical direction—character notes, text cuts—that they rebelled.  When I started with some very specific directorial decisions, the actors were so openly grateful that I was afraid to admit that I’d never staged a professional production before.)

Mamet specifically says, by the way, that crowd scenes would be more natural if actors just followed their instincts.  (He was, I admit, referring overtly to film extras.)  According to theater history, though, the very first true director, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, was most recognized for creating natural and realistic crowd scenes in contrast with those that had been staged before his advent, when actors simply clumped together according to their own proclivities.  Doesn’t that suggest that actors don’t have the instinct to create natural crowds, but that a director is necessary, or at least helpful?  It does to me. 

Now, of course, Mamet disparages “Stanislavsky-based training” in the same breath in which he dismisses all theorists and theories.  (He especially singles out Brecht’s Alienation Effect as “unimplementable” and holds up “a lot of Joe Papp’s oeuvre in the ’70s” as proof.)  He asserts that Konstantin Stanislavsky and Bertolt Brecht and others like them (such as Vsevelod Meyerhold or Yevgeny Vakhtangov) were “great” directors because they were successful with audiences (that is, the audiences kept coming back to their shows, so they must have liked what they saw), but Mamet says that was because they instinctively understood what worked on stage, not because they had theories which were especially valid.  Mamet doesn’t say so in “On Directing” (though he does say so in True and False, in which he declares unequivocally that Stanislavsky training, “and all the schools derived from it, is nonsense”), but the only “training” of which he approves is apprenticeship and school-of-hard-knocks experience.  That’s how he says he learned—by observing what he saw that worked.  Nothing he read in any book on acting or directing—and he was referring to all the standards by all the people I’ve named—is of any value at all.  

Now, I’d agree that apprenticeships and practice are great teachers, though I’d advise having someone as a mentor or master who’s demonstrably good at his or her job (and it would help if those masters are able to talk about what they’re doing).  In fact, I’ve posited that that’s really the only way actually to teach directing—studio classes like those comparable to acting classes aren’t very effective for directing, I don’t think.  Doing scene after two-character scene in class quickly becomes ineffective and useless.  However, that would mean keeping directing programs down to a handful of students, no more than, say, two to three per master-director and probably no more than half a dozen all together since there’s a limit to the number of shows any school could manage to mount on which apprentice directors could work.  But that’s pretty impractical and not very cost-effective.  Further, I think there’s a lot that can be gained from reading theory—especially Brecht, Meyerhold, Artaud (nuts or not), Grotowski, among others.  You don’t want to follow a book slavishly, of course, but those theorists open up vistas.  Mamet says that Brecht’s alienation effect is disastrous; but either he doesn’t understand it—which I suspect—or he’s being somehow ideologically dismissive.  Theory, after all, comes from practice—Grotowski wrote: “A philosophy always comes after a technique”—it’s seldom invented out of whole cloth.  Brecht didn’t invent the A-effect, he just gave it a name.  It had been around since the Greeks (and Brecht learned it from a Russian first anyway); he just saw it as a principle on which he could found a (didactic) theater.  (If it’s so disastrous, how come the Berliner Ensemble is still going half a century after Brecht’s death?  If Mamet were right, it should have died when Brecht did—or not even gotten off the ground because all his theories, which the BE was built to apply, are bullshit.)

As for actor-created staging: from what I’ve seen—admittedly a limited sample—when a cast “directs” itself, there’s usually one member of the company who assumes the role of director.  (It reverts back to the actor-manager system.)  When that doesn’t happen, it’s almost always a mess—a real cluster fuck (as we used to say in the army).  On the flip-side, even when there is a designated director, even someone with strong and idiosyncratic ideas, the actors get a lot of input and often create their own staging in rehearsal that the director accepts or plays off of.  (Not always, of course; some directors are dictators.)  Mamet specifically dismisses the tactic of using little models to develop blocking which is then transferred to rehearsal and maybe that’s a terrible way to work.  But, first of all, it strikes me as the extreme of “director-created staging” methods and can’t legitimately be used as an argument against all director-generated work.  I can’t speak for other directors whom Mamet might have observed, of course, but I suspect most conscientious ones don’t follow this practice.  Any director, however, who slavishly follows a cardboard model (or any preconceived staging plan) deserves Mamet’s opprobrium.  But I can’t imagine that there are many who do that.  (Shapiro, who had strong and idiosyncratic ideas, got a lot of input from his actors who often contributed their own staging in rehearsal which Shapiro played off of.  It was a give-and-take collaboration with the actors developing staging ideas which the director would develop or adapt to suit the production as a whole.)

It’s also important, I think, to remember that the very rationale for inventing the director was to have someone with an “outside eye” who could observe the production from the spectators’ perspective and coordinate everything so that it all seems one piece.  The actors on stage can’t do that.  (Which is why I have said that directors who direct themselves on stage—film is different—are asking for trouble.  They either pay too much attention to the directing end of the job—watching from outside the scene—which means they aren’t on stage to be observed—or too much to the acting end, neglecting the need to see what’s going on from out front—which disadvantages not only the director, but the other actors as well.  I was in a production of Macbeth that was like that—the director also played the title role.  Things got so bad that the two actors playing Malcolm and Macduff, and I, playing Ross, got together on our own to rehearse the England scene.  Some spectators said it was the best scene in the play as a result.)  Furthermore, what feels natural and even real when you’re doing it on stage may not look natural or real—or good, or even just visible—from the house.  Maybe the analogy is weak, but I can’t count how often an actor’s come off stage after a scene and said, “Man, I was awful tonight,” only to hear from spectators later that they thought he was wonderful?  Or vice versa?  Actors, in my experience, are the worst judges of their own performance—and that has to be true of blocking and staging as much as emotion and line delivery. 

As for the art of the actor, Mamet isn’t quite so dismissive.  He is reductive, however, instructing: “Throw some actors into summer stock, and tell them to learn their lines as the play’s to go up in two nights, and their natural self-direction will be superior to . . . the services of a director.”  Neil Pepe, artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company which he launched in 1985 with Mamet and actor William H. Macy, says that the playwright has declared, “There’s no such thing as talent; you just have to work hard enough.”  (Pepe, who’s directed many Mamet scripts, admits he “argues” with the statement.)  That may be hearsay, but in True and False, Mamet’s on record asserting, “The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character. . . .  There is no character.  There are only lines upon a page.”  Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which premièred Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood in 1997, explains, “David doesn’t believe in characterization or interpretation.  His approach is basically, ‘Read my lines.’”  And Scott Zigler, who directed Neighborhood at ART and later that year on Broadway, interprets the Mamet style of acting, known as Practical Esthetics, thus: “The idea is to not feel the lines, you have to just say them.”  “The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience,” pronounces Mamet.  “That is the beginning and end of his and her job.” 

Practical Esthetics (which is still taught in the Atlantic Theater Company School) is generally an assault on the Stanislavsky System and, more directly, on Lee Strasberg’s Method.  In  a 1998 New York Times profile of the writer, Rachel Shteir observes, “In the same way that Mr. Mamet boils down American naturalistic dramaturgy to spare, tough-guy talk, so Practical Esthetics condenses naturalistic acting into a blunter, street-wise style in which emotion itself seems excessive.”  In Ben Brantley’s estimation (as expressed in his Times review of the 1999 ATC Water Engine revival), the on-stage result of the Mametian style of acting, which the reviewer characterized as “basically of the ‘just-say-the-words’ sort,” was “a feeling that the talented actors (many of them Mamet veterans) are reciting their lines as though they were reading sheet music.” 

Finally, I have to remonstrate with Mamet about his overall suggestion: directors bad; actors good.  He seems to think that all directors force actors into strange and not necessarily wondrous configurations and behavior.  Obviously, that’s not true since most shows are directed and most are perfectly acceptable; many even are better than that.  Most directors, even the pedestrian ones, are very aware of what they’re doing with respect to their audiences.  (Peter Sellars may be an exception.  He seems not to give a shit about his audience.  Or anyone else apparently.)  One particular illustration comes to mind.  As readers of ROT will already know, I consider Beckett’s Waiting for Godot one of theater’s most brilliant works.  (For my full explication of this opinion, read especially “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” 17 April 2009.)  It was, of course, innovative and new when it was staged here in 1956, and no one really knew what to make of it.  Bert Lahr, who played Estragon, has said that he had no idea what he was doing throughout the production.  He just went with what the director, Alan Schneider in the Miami début and Herbert Berghof on Broadway, told him.  Now, imagine what he would have done left to his own devices?  Well, actually, I can’t imagine.  But it would almost certainly have been a mess.  Of course, Mamet’s theater world doesn’t make room for Becketts, Ionescos, or Kopits and such.  It’s all Realism and Naturalism or their relatives.  And then there are those rare directors who, even if only a few times in their careers, do have strange and wondrous ideas: Brook, Serban, Welles, Marowitz, and the others.  Wouldn’t we be all the poorer were it not for them and their peculiar and unnatural notions?  Mamet must live in a very cramped and pinched world.

[As a sort of companion article to this discussion, I’m posting an old report I wrote in 2006 on the ATC première of Mamet’s Romance.  It will be published on 21 August.]