Johanna Blakley

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Archive for theater

Re-Imagining Memoir: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

FunHome

Even though it had been highly recommended to me repeatedly, I didn’t get around to reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home until after I saw the musical at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It’s rare that I retain enough interest in something to read the book after having seen the movie or the play, but I knew I would this time. The musical, which grabbed five Tonys, was such a fresh, original take on memoir, with subject matter so foreign to the Broadway stage, that I knew I would enjoy, at the very least, mulling over the differences between book and play.

I was especially eager to dig into the book after I read a fantastic interview with Lisa Kron by Laurie Winer in the LA Review of Books. Kron was the playwright for Fun Home and I was really intrigued when she claimed that about 75% of the play doesn’t appear in the memoir (what?!) and that the book didn’t contain any scenes:

“There are no scenes in the book. There are no scenes! There is no dramatic action, there are no sustained scenes. There aren’t even really characters. There’s Alison at this age, at this age, and at this age. There are fragment[s] of scenes in different locations.”

I just couldn’t fathom what that meant, and I must, say, after having read the memoir, I’m still not sure what she’s talking about. Either her notion of what qualifies as a “scene” or a “character” completely diverges from mine, or (and this possibility entrances me) her play so deeply informed my reading of the memoir, that I was unable to recognize the lack of scenes or character. Had Kron baked into my mind the material I needed to bridge the gaps between plot fragments and character revelations? It seems like I would need a time machine to know (or a device like the one in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

But then I remembered Scott McCloud’s brilliant graphic book, Understanding Comics.

comicscenes

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Tracking “Culture”

culturetrack

I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

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Measuring the Impact of Art

audience

Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.

“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »

Launching the Media Impact Project

MIPlogo270

Yesterday, I was very excited to launch the Media Impact Project, which aspires to be a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by $3.25 million in initial funding from the Gates and Knight Foundations, I’m optimistic that the Norman Lear Center can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.

The New York Times picked up the story and I was thrilled to see reporter Michael Cieply focus on this aspect of the program:

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Let Me Infotain You

Click on the image to see an animated version of this art by Sykotik Scarecrow.

In April of this year, I attended Fractal’11, a truly unique conference in Medellin, Colombia, that explored the convergence of fiction, art, science and technology. The event was the perfect forum for me to talk about my winding career path, which began in an English PhD program, meandered through a Web start-up and an international multimedia company and deposited me, quite happily at the Norman Lear Center

One of the many fascinating themes of the conference (I explored several others here) was the appeal of infotainment, material that serves two seemingly unrelated purposes: to occupy attention agreeably (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines “entertainment”) and to transmit practical information that may just contribute to your survival. 

My talk about Entertainment as Virtual Reality focused on the ways in which entertainment – catchy pop songs, video games, movies, opera, toys, etc. – could be understood as simulations, little virtual reality machines that allow us to test our ideas about the world in safe, artificial spaces. Regardless of how distracting a cultural object may be, it is also a powerful transmitter of information about our world, and it can have a surprisingly profound impact on our lives well outside the movie theater, concert hall or American Girls store. Read the rest of this entry »

Free Culture Forum

I was very excited to attend the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona last October: the event was quite unique in its effort to bring together a broad range of scholars and activists from all around the world to work together to develop guidelines for sustainable models for creativity in the digital age. There were some pretty noisy fights, let me tell you, but at long last, we’ve produced a great brief which, so far, has been endorsed by 69 organizations and key players in the field. Please take a look at the document and be sure to watch this fun video about the Forum and its annual entertainment showcase called the oXcars.

Halloween: A great time to let the slut out?

That's Mistress Hook to you, matey.

A few years ago, a girlfriend of mine dressed up like a pimp and her husband posed as her ho. Everyone loved it — except my friend. Hundreds of pictures and lots of laughs later, she said she’d never ever wear something that wasn’t slutty for Halloween again. “But everyone loved it!” I said. “Yeah, but Larry got all the attention!”

Women have a more than ample supply of trampy costumes to choose from these days, and I can’t help but think that demand is driving it. When I go to Halloween parties these days, I’m often amazed at the self-professed feminists, succesful businesswomen and hard-core intellectuals who turn up as French maids, horny school girls or (a perenial favorite) naughty little devils.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, am guilty of giving in to the tramp in me. I think one reason I adore Halloween is because it gives women like me, who believe we should be taken seriously in this crazy world, a chance to do all the things that mama told us not to. Why dress up like a monster when you can be an expensive call girl instead? (When I dressed up like Anna Wintour last year, that’s what some guy thought I was.)

In a way, the most dangerous, and most monstrous thing, that a strong self-possessed woman could do in this world is to dress like a prostitute. And, of course, that’s why we like doing it.

Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary critic and philosopher, talked about the political importance of the carnivalesque in literary and cultural representations (hey — wasn’t I just talking about the carnivalesque the other day?). Carnavalesque describes a subversive cultural mode that overturns our assumptions about good taste and proper behavior. Modern day carnivals do this to some extent, as well as Mardi Gras and, I would argue, Halloween. In fact, I  can hardly think of any other holiday in the U.S. that so whole-heartedly commits itself to turning the world upside down, giving us a chance to become the things we fear or despise. Whether we dress up like ghouls or sluts, the act of impersonating another character is, in Bakhtin’s eyes, pretty damn subversive. It gives us an opportunity to experience our lives, briefly, from the perspective of another. Most women with strong self-esteem probably have no rational desire to be a sexual object for hire, but I think very few could argue with a straight face that they’ve never fantasized about it. Halloween gives us an excellent opportunity to confront our fears, to show surprising sides of ourselves, and to subvert our own status quo.

So what should I be this year? I’m thinking the girl with the dragon tattoo . . .

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