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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (7/24/17) 12:28am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   America's Founding Fathers [audiocourse], Ghost Light [audiobook]
Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>

America's Founding Fathers [audiocourse] by Allen C. Guelzo
This is the Great Courses lecture series about the personalities behind the writing and ratifying of the United States Constitution.  I homed in on this course after seeing enough Internet trolls insist on Originalist interpretations of the law -- i.e., the way to find the right and just way to behave is to determine what the framers of the United States believed in their hearts as they put pen to paper.  I've always thought this an inane and gutless copout, both because I figured if you asked five framers about a political issue, you'd probably get seven opinions for your trouble, and that you should have ideas about morality and justice that you yourself have thought through, instead of deferring blindly to a trusted authority.

But at the same time, I did realize how little I knew about the founding of the United States -- so, between that and happy memories of season one of Sleepy Hollow, I dug up this audiocourse.

This was not an easy listen for me.  I have trouble learning history.  I think the main problem is that I know so little about it that I have very little in the way of a framework to add new facts to.  Mention a year before 1920 and I'm likely to have only a vague notion of what was going on in the US then -- who was president, what daily life was like, the news of the day, and so on.  It all fades into this murky mess of genocide and dudes with moustaches.  And so, with this course, I'd hear vaguely familiar names, only to realize that no, I really had very little idea who James Madison was, apart from "President? Once? Maybe?"

But I listened as closely as I could, and held on to what bits of pieces I could, and I trust that the next time I dive into the early days of the Republic, I'll have a little better lay of the land.

All of which is a lot about me and nothing, yet, about the course itself. 

The course is a mixed bag.  Each lecture is framed around a single figure in the history surrounding the Constitutional Convention.  And that's a very effective structure -- it gives you a glimpse of the personalities involved in the framing, and each lecture shines a light on that person's particular interests, letting the lecturer build up a sort of mosaic of all the issues in play through those years.  But it's hamstrung by Professor Guelzo's limitations as a prose storyteller.  He can never quite capture any of their personalities, or arrange a lecture to be a story, with that character going after something in a tale with a beginning, middle, and end.

As such, it often winds up feeling like a series of wikipedia articles.  It doesn't help that his lecturing style is much more presentational and much less conversational.  Some lecturers can lean into the 'lecture' style, peppering their canned material with seemingly off-the-cuff digressions, or dad jokes, or quasi-interactions with the listener, as the lecturer exhorts you to entertain some question before continuing with the material.  But Guelzo is just patiently reading his book of essays, intending his audience to be entirely passive.  It makes it easy for one's attention to drift.

Mind you, they feel like very *good* wikipedia articles.  Guelzo is an exceedingly good performer, animated and into the material.  And he has a writing style that lets him blend his own prose with contemporaneous quotes almost seamlessly, giving the series an air of letting the Founders tell their own story.  But again, the material has that encyclopedic air of dryly recounting the facts, with little of the emotion or personality behind the events -- and a good reading can only do so much when the text itself is wanting.

Still, it's interesting-enough material, particularly in how the conflicts of the late 18th century so often reflect our own.  There were vituperative disagreements over the separation of church and state, and debates about keeping various states from getting an upper hand over others, and widespread doubt about newfound financial instruments like the 'national debt', and absolutely knockdown fights about race.  And here we are today, with all the same battle lines.

All in all, I'd say it's a poor introduction to the framing of the Constitution, but if you already have some experience in the field, this audiocourse can fill things out nicely.


Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy, Theater in the Americas by Michael Mark Chemers [audiobook]
This is Michael Mark Chemers's basic introduction to dramaturgy.

Logical question: what is dramaturgy?

And hoo boy, already we're in the thick of it.  Being a dramaturg is a relatively new job, as far as the history of theater goes, and different theaters still interpret the role somewhat differently.  As such, it comes across as one of those job titles like "Consultant" that's so vague you just naturally assume it's a cover for "hit man".

From my reading of The Ghost Light, I'd say it's the dramaturg's job to know answers to all the questions about the play.

This includes questions about the context of the play.  This means historical stuff: if you're the dramaturg, you know what was happening in the world when the play came out, you can explain all the cultural references or outdated slang.  But it also includes art history: you know how this play relates to different theatrical traditions.  "Aha!  This was such-and-such's first foray into surrealism!  But it still has her kitchen-sink-play tendencies, which some critics have interpreted to mean..." and so on.  Ideally, you provide all this info in well-written packets to the cast and crew.

But this also includes questions like "why are we doing this play?"  You're probably not the *source* of the answer to that one -- it'll likely be decided by the theater's artistic director, the production's director, or (more likely) some combination of the two.  And you're not deciding how that answer gets put into action -- you don't tell the designers how to design, you don't tell the actors how to act, you don't tell the ushers how to ush.  But you at least *know* the answer, and can help get people on that same page.  Side note: that means that, you've made sure that the people in charge have thought through an answer to "why this play now?"

Chemers has written a good book, but it got turned into a bad audiobook.  Part of this is due to format: The Ghost Light is basically an 'intro to dramaturgy' textbook, and because it's a textbook, it presents some material in exhaustive list format, and includes sets of exercises at the end of each chapter, and has occasional collections of references.  All of that's fine for a textbook, but sounds awful in spoken-work format.  And the narrator's delivery is so awkward-book-report that I wonder if he actually understands the material he's recounting.  (Various mispronunciations hint at "no".)

Even in spite of that, the book is a good introduction to a somewhat wild-and-wooly field.  It does a nice rundown of the history of theater, various different critical schools of analysis, and useful step-by-step processes for play analysis and production.  It's pretty much a bird's-eye view of *everything* -- which is useful in and of iteself -- and he does a good job of explaining how it all slots into the job of dramaturgy.  And while he doesn't explicitly mention improv (though he does go into some detail about devising), every question he raises about scripted theater is worth exploring for improv as well.

Well worth checking out.  In book form.


For next week: caught up on books; still backlogged on movies (Baby Driver, Colossal, The Big Sick).  Currently watching Deutschland 83, reading a spy novel, and listening to a history of everyday life in the ancient world.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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