Thursday, August 28, 2008

Halka Kaiserova, Consul General for the Czech Republic in New York

Halka Kaiserova, the Consul General for the Czech Republic in New York, is ending her term here at the end of this week. The ending is premature, in my opinion, not to delve too deeply into Czech politics. I can say that during her tenure here she has been a great ambassador for the Czech people and a great friend to theater, and I will be sorry to see her leave her post.

Halka (it seems awkward for me to say Ms. Kaiserova, for I feel over time we have become friends) took her post shortly before the Havel Festival, and she was, from the very beginning, an enthusiastic and active advocate for our festival. She has reason to be attached to Havel--she is an old member of his administration and she was a participant, from the very beginning, in the protests that led to the Velvet Revolution. She is also knowledgeable and experienced in theater. We could not have asked for a better match.

She arranged the launch party for the festival on Havel's birthday. It was the first major use of the Bohemian National Hall, which will officially open, finally, this October. The trek to open the building has been a long and hard one, but that first day was greatly celebratory and a wonderful way to begin the Havel Festival. She provided Czech food and a space and we provided what entertainment we could - music, video, and some live performance. Czech television came and broadcast the event on primetime. It was an amazing introduction to the Czech community, which continued to be supportive throughout.

Once Havel had arrived, she scheduled his appearances at the theater and accompanied him each time (he came on nine occasions). She also attended on her own, sometimes with her husband Petr Kaiser, who works at the United Nations and has been a great support throughout as well. I still remember the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution where she, Havel, Madeleine Albright, Ambassador Martin Palous, and many others crowded into the tiny Brick Theater to see a production of Temptation, directed by Ian W. Hill. Afterwards they all stayed, drank with us, and made speeches. Halka translated for me as Havel declared that there was no place he would rather spend the anniversary of the Revolution. It was the highlight of the whole festival, for me. I have included a photo of Havel and Trey Kay, the leader of the band playing...Halka is not seen, of course. Her work was most always behind the scenes.

Since the time of the festival, Halka has consistently advocated for us, and we in turn have been excited to continue to explore Czech theater. It has been her welcoming spirit, in part, that has really encouraged the company to concentrate on promoting the Czech Republic here in New York. I love the Czechs, but when I say that I mean of course I love those Czechs I have met like Halka, who have warm, generous spirits and open hearts. Who have great intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for the arts.

Halka is not the only one I have met to have these qualities, far from it, but she is one of the outstanding examples. I wish her luck in her future pursuits, and I am sure that wherever she is posted she will continue to bring her intelligence, energy, and heart.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Robert Lepage, 400th anniversary of Quebec

I just returned from a week away in Maine and Canada, and one of the major highlights of the trip was seeing Robert Lepage's installation, Moulin a Images (The Image Mill), projected onto the grain elevators of Quebec City's grain elevators in honor of its 400th anniversary (Do most people in the U. S. even know that the city is 400 years old this year? I didn't, to my embarrassment).

Robert Lepage has been one of my favorite theater directors for years. One of the most amazing pieces of theater I have ever seen is his Far Side of the Moon, which he later made into an (inferior) movie.

I say inferior because I don't know if it is possible to translate Lepage's stage magic into film. Lepage runs a company called Ex Machina, and they specialize in modern technology and special effects for theater. But Lepage's effects are not special because of technology alone. The most effective are often the most simple--I think of him lying on the stage floor , covered with projections of stars and just moving on the ground while seeming like he was floating in space. Simple but brilliant.

In film, of course, special effects like that are almost more commonplace. Tricks of post production can produce effects far more elaborate, and thus much less amazing.

Of course, Lepage's work is not trickery alone. It is trickery which is first and foremost in service of telling a great story, filled with emotion.

Moulin a Images reminded me of many animated films I have seen, and in a way that's exactly what it was--a huge animated film projected on grain elevators, with a couple of special effect tricks thrown in. Lepage divided the history into the four elements (an Age of Water, an Age of Fire, etc), and that one concept was useful as a framework of the whole.

What struck me, watching it. was the similarity of all history of the last 400 years. In some ways, the story of Quebec City could be any North American city's story (though none are so long-lived). In others, the story of a walled city that has served as the center of French-English controversies for centuries is a very unique one, especially for North America.

Was it the same as seeing a live performance of a Lepage piece? How could it be. But it was something I was glad to see, nonetheless. Outside, watching Lepage's work with awe, were many native residents of Quebec. I couldn't help envy a little the awe in which a stage director from outside the U. S. can be held in his own country.

Connect to the links above for some glances, if you like. There are some good images on his web page and the official 400th anniversary web site.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ozma Sees Herself

Okay, so I have no regular schedule for excerpts. And today's excerpt is sort of an old one, except that I am theoretically working on a new book of short stories that will include this story. I say theoretically, because my time available to work on it has been short. It would be a book not only of Oz related stories, but also a few inspired by other books - an Alice Story, a Pinnochio story, and one based on Edith Nesbit's books (my favorite, at a certain age).

But I was just talking about this story, which was on my mind partly because it was what first drew me to write for children. I wrote it for Oz Story 3, a publication of Hungry Tiger Press, which went on to publish my Oz books (and will publish my book of short stories, should I ever finish it...

Anyway, this one was inspired by an incident I always found odd as a child...when the boy Tip was transformed into the princess Ozma and hardly blinked an I wrote a story about the transitionary period

Here's the beginning of it:

Ozma was up in a tree. Her white dress was covered with twigs and leaves and small rips caused by the branches. She looked down at the Emerald City below her, feeling rebellious, as search parties scoured the city looking for her.

Ever since she had learned her true identity, there had been endless days of court procedures and formal banquets and meetings with foreign dignitaries, and she was frankly sick of it. Today she was supposed to meet the King and Queen of Ev, but she had snuck out of the palace to go tree climbing. There was a tree just outside the palace that was her favorite, and she intended to stay there all day.

When she had first become Princess, she thought it would all be luxurious fun. Indeed, she was given a beautiful suite of rooms, even if it was all done up in pink, her least favorite color. She was given expensive clothes to wear, even if they were all clumsy dresses. Most impressively, she was given a large staff to respond to her every need, even if they did spend half the day dressing her up and fussing with her hair.

Their excuse for spending all that time on her hair was that she refused to so much as comb it herself. That was because, ever since she had changed into a Princess, the thought of looking in a mirror made her uncomfortable, and she absolutely refused to do so. Even when she passed by a reflective surface, she quickly looked away. But even so, she couldn't believe her attendants had to take so long to do her hair. When she was merely Tip, she had combed her own hair every day, and it had taken about thirty seconds.

But the worst part about being Princess was the confinement. No one wanted to let her out of their sight, for fear that she would be abducted again. So they tried to occupy her time, when she wasn't at a boring banquet or entertaining another tedious dignitary, with sedentary indoor pursuits, like sewing. Ozma hated sewing. She would constantly prick her finger, and what she made always looked dreadful anyway. At least when she had lived with horrible old Mombi, she was able to sneak away during the day and climb trees or whittle branches or splash in the stream. Now she was stuck indoors all day long, and she hated it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tisha B'Av, Hannukah, and a play..

I have been working on a play called Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee. I wrote it for a theater interested in a holiday play, but I find myself reflecting about it now, just after the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av.

Perhaps holiday is the wrong word for a day spent fasting and mourning for the loss of the First and Second Temples, in Jerusalem. Supposedly, both temples were lost on the ninth of Av, and Tisha B'Av (literally a date, like 9/11) commemorates that loss.

Hannukah is sort of the flip side of Tisha B'Av. It commemorates the day that Judah Maccabee retook the temple from the Selucids (A Hellenic culture). The whole burning of the oil for eight days idea came later, as did the dreidels, the latkas, and especially the presents.

It was soon after Judah Maccabee retook the Temple that a split occurred in Judaism. There were those (the Pharisees) who thought that worship could happen outside the temple. After all, hadn't the Jews worshiped even without the Temple? There were those (the Sedducees) who thought nothing could happen outside the Temple.

Yochanan ben Zakai (considered by some to be the first Rabbi) even thought there could be worship without animal sacrifice.

In some ways, the Pharisees were the first Jewish radicals.

Then the temple was destroyed. End of argument. Beginning of Judaism as we know it.

And though any destruction is a tragedy, I am moved to ask, was the destruction a bad thing for Judaism? Old style Judaism resembled Catholicism more than anything else. A high priest, with complete power. A strict hierarchy. Authority above all

Without the Temple, we suddenly had the Talmud as the main authority--full of conflicting opinions, disagreement, radicalism, and independent thought. The rabbis and the Talmud brought not only a religion that substituted prayer for animal sacrifice but a religion without one central figure whose word was law for all. Which brought on endless disagreements, which continue to this day.

And, if I may be so bold, most of what I love about Judaism lies in those disagreements. I love that the Talmud can list different opinions, all different, and call them all valid. I love the radical thinking that Judaism inspires. I love the fact that Judaism values questioning.

I suspect if Judah Maccabee saw what has become of Judaism, without the Temple, he would barely recognize it.

So my goal is to be honest to those feelings and thoughts while still having a play that celebrates Hannukah.

An enjoyable challenge..

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Drunkard's Walk

I just finished reading a book by Leonard Mlodinow called The Drunkard's Walk. I picked it up because it reviewed well in the New York Times and seemed to be an interesting examination of probability (An interest of mine, even more so since my picture book on the subject was released). I was unprepared with how impressed I would be by the book.

I soon realized that the book was almost as much about psychology (and neurology) as it was about probability. It was not just about the mathematics, it was about why the human brain has such a hard time calculating probability objectively. It was about the human need to see non-existent patterns in randomness, to let our biases unconsciously affect our perceptions, and to ignore relevant mitigating events when assessing the odds.

It was a call to reexamine our beliefs in an objective light, something almost impossible for people to do.

It included experiments I am very familiar with from my recent readings on neurology: for example, the fact that animals can predict what a randomly blinking red and green light will blink next better than humans, because we are trying to solve the question of a pattern, even when one isn't there. It even included the Rosenhan experiment--an experiment I have seen cited, oddly, in the three of the last five books I've read. Before that, I had never heard of that experiment.

Random chance, or an indication the experiment is entering the zeitgeist? Probably a bit of both

The Rosenhan experiment was carried out to see whether eight different people, with no mental illness except for the (fictional) symptom of hearing the word "thud," would be diagnosed as schizophrenic by a psychiatrist. Seven were--the other was diagnosed manic-depressive. Subsequent claims to no longer hear the word "thud" didn't change the bias. The bias had already cemented the diagnosis.

How does this relate to probability? Our own biases, based on events caused by random chance (great success or failure), help form our opinions, even when our conscious mind knows that the events were luck related. We are always seeking to find reasons why people deserve their success or failure, trying to create patterns where there is only randomness.

Mlodinow urges that we judge by ability, not by results. A difficult proposition, but definitely a worthy goal.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Impressions of SCBWI

I just returned from the four day children's writer's conference in LA, held annually by SCBWI. My first time going, and worth it, I think. It's hard to quickly sum up four days, but here are my impressions:

A good way to hear what editors are looking for (and a great way to submit to closed markets, for those without an agent)

I picked up some very useful tips regarding school visits.

It was interesting to be on the published authors track and see that male authors for children (and male editors) are a great rarity. Also, I found it somehow encouraging that among published authors, I was always one of the youngest in the room.

Interesting to hear the various opinions about whether the picture book is dying, having a hard time, about to pick up again, or actually thriving.

Met a lot of nice people, mostly writers, mostly unpublished, but all nice.

Met Verla Kay. I mention that in particular because she has an amazing message board located at

Overall, worth the trip. And worth the money, I think