Dear Readers, I really hope you have plans to be out watching some live performance in the next few weeks – because there is just so much on offer that it would be a shame if you missed out. Here’s a run down of my plans for the next two weeks – I invite you to join me!
This week, you can get a good laugh at local and national current events and help out the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank all in one festive evening: the annual satire/fundraiser Off the Record is Thursday, Oct. 4 at the Byham. The cheap seats start at $31.25 but I know you’re not cheap when it comes to charity, right? Splurge for the orchestra section, it’s for a good cause.
The weekend brings three openings: Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the opening of a new play by Liza Birkenmeier called The Way Out West at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and the opening of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m excited about the first because I am a Jane Austen fan through and through (but you probably guessed that about me, didn’t you?) and because I really dug this script when I read it a few months ago. I’m thrilled about the second because this is the first play commissioned by the School of Drama, and Birkenmeier has found a subject of deep interest to explore: the group of young scientists who traveled to the wilds of the desert in Los Alamos in the early 1940s to work on a project that remained a mystery to the majority of them. And the third? Well, Nguyen’s work is completely new to me, which is always exciting, and since I don’t post about student work, if you are as curious to discover his work as I am, you’ll need to see it yourself.
The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts continues! This weekend, Joan Didion’s The White Album plays at the August Wilson Center Friday through Sunday. The children’s show Gab Squad is also on, Wednesday through Saturday. You can still catch the installation Beyond: Playmodes, and if you are making plans for next week – and you should be making plans for next week! – coming up are In the Tunnel (from Israel); What’s That? (from the Ukraine); and Deborah Colker Dance (from Brazil – one night only, Oct 13).
Speaking of the Festival of Firsts – I wanted to write a tiny bit more about Blind Cinema. I sought out a chance to speak with Seth Laidlaw, the Education Program Manager at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, because I was curious about how the kids were instructed and trained to narrate the film. He told me that Britt Hatzius began by explaining how simultaneous audio narration is a means by which the blind often experience film, and that there are people trained to do what she was going to teach the kids to do in the 90 minute workshop. She then had them practice describing photographs to each other, with an emphasis on describing details, using lots of adjectives, and trying to make the description even more interesting and compelling than the photo they were looking at. They then practiced describing the action of a short piece of film. She worked with them on keeping their voice in a whisper, even when they got excited by what they were seeing, and encouraged them to react as they might naturally react to what they saw, but to remember that they needed to focus on details and on storytelling.
I was also interested in knowing more about the children’s experience of Blind Cinema, because in a sense the kids were both audience to and performer of the film. I had the chance to speak with 11-year-old Mia, a student at Holy Trinity who was one of the “whisperers.” She told me that she thought the whole experience was pretty great – not only did she think the movie was pretty cool, but she also enjoyed feeling that she had the responsibility to help another person understand what she was seeing. She said that she tried to give vivid information, because she realized that she needed to give as much detail as possible in order for her listeners to be able to see what she saw. At the same time, she also confessed that much as she liked the movie while she was narrating it, she didn’t really understand the whole thing until she had a chance to think about it afterward.
In the course of our conversation I gained a greater appreciation of the gap between what can be known from seeing something first hand, and what can be gleaned from verbal description. It turns out that there were many events in the film that I had forgotten, or simply failed to fully visualize – for example, one of Mia’s strongest memories of the film was of a gorilla: at one point the boy puts the eggshells in a gorilla’s hand and then the egg becomes whole again, grows feathers, and disappears. When she mentioned the gorilla, I vaguely recalled having that narrated to me, but because at that point in the film I was struggling to find a visual world into which I could integrate an office building, rubble, fireworks, eggshells, drawn/drewed doors, etc., I completely failed to picture “gorilla” and as a result it didn’t stick in my memory – whereas for Mia, the gorilla was a potent visual image that persisted. Moreover, I suspect it never occurred to any of the kids to include the one piece of information that would most help their listeners understand the film’s visual world – that is, the film’s genre/style. I asked two other adults who had “seen” the film, and they both reported having thought, like me, that the film was some mix of animation and live action. According to Mia, the whole film had real people (and a real gorilla) and real locations – at one point, she said, there was a photograph of a building that turned into a real building, but otherwise it was a live action film. I don’t fault the kids for omitting that information – after all, the vast majority of movies are live action, so it makes sense to assume that your listener would be visualizing a live action film and wouldn’t need to be told so specifically. And yet it’s fascinating that all three of us blindfolded adults (small sample, I know, but I bet we were not alone) arrived at the conclusion that the strange shifts in locale and character that were being narrated to us must have been facilitated through animation or some other filmic trick.
Now, with that information, my own visual memory of the film has started to revise itself, so that Blind Cinema continues to play in my consciousness, long after the “performance” itself has ended.