Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

On the CriFi Horizon

June Lorraine Roberts

June Lorraine Roberts

Vicki asked me to comment on where the crime fiction (CriFi) genre is headed. I’ve enjoyed her diverse and timely blog for a while now. Certainly, her request has caused much reflection on my part.

Let me start with an online definition of crime fiction. Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct.

I quite like the term indistinct. It indicates the versatility and flexibility available to the genre. Two posts I did earlier this year were on the blend of science fiction and steam punk with crime fiction. For me it’s one way to broaden reading horizons and generate ideas on how to move CriFi forward.

Several books have done well examining marriage and family relationships within crime fiction since Gone Girl appeared on shelves. The word ‘Girl’ still appears in book titles, but not for much longer I suspect.

What’s next? If we could predict the next big trend we’d be hard at writing it now. However, there are authors who are using an inventive edge.

Currently, I’m halfway through Fickle by Peter Manus. Written as blog posts on two different websites, followers speculate and ask questions of the bloggers. The storyline is easy to follow, no talking over one another. And it’s well done. I have no idea how the book will wrap up, but it’s sharp and clever and I’m enjoying its modern, noir atmosphere.

Is it the next big thing? Probably not. But it makes the point that, when talent isn’t enough, a different way of looking at things can boost the likelihood of being published. One of the many challenges for writers today is beating the numbers and getting your book noticed. First by an agent, then by a publisher, and then by readers. Every year thousands of CriFi books are released worldwide by publishing houses. Imagine how many more are self-published!

A number of recent books run dual storylines: past and present. While not new, this construct is very effective at moving along a storyline, giving readers the backstory for the main character in a concise fashion. (I just reviewed one exactly like this—What Remains of Me—for—ed.)

In other storylines, we have narratives written from the perspective of two or more characters. Add to that blog posts from two websites, and location changes for protagonists–all this shows a duality of nature that is as common as villain vs. hero. Perhaps there is opportunity here to leverage our creativity and reader interest. Or at least to have us think about storylines from a different slant.

It’s the openness to new ideas and the willingness to try an atypical approach that marks today’s crime fiction. It speaks to our society and the cultural mores of this place in time. Much has changed in the past 15 years. What we need to do, as authors, is harness the change and let it generate new ideas, and, as readers, be willing to experiment.

The thing about a book is that it is both tangible and intangible. You can hold a book in your hands and take it many places. But the story, the story is what you carry inside you, and it can take you to places you never expected.

Guest poster June Lorraine Roberts is a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in Tengri Magazine and Aware Magazine. Her first CriFi flash fiction story was picked-up by the Flash Fiction Press earlier this year, and she continues to work at plotting devious story lines. Check out her website:

Summer in the City


photo: Beyond My Ken, creative commons license

On what seemed like the hottest day of the year, I took the train into Manhattan to celebrate the birthday of my long-time friend Nancy. We plan these excursions for each other instead of another present. We give “the gift of time,” as another friend also named Nancy calls it.

We’ve done all kinds of things and had many delicious lunches in restaurants I’ve returned to gladly. Yesterday we visited two smaller museums 20 blocks up Fifth Avenue from The Met and still across the street from Central Park.

The Museum of the City of New York has three exhibition floors, with rotating exhibits. The new gallery of the Tiffany Foundation, “Gilded New York,” contained a few large portraits, gorgeous jewelry, and ornaments from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Small, but a gem. At the temporary portrait exhibit (through September 18), “Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700-1860,” we could get in close to see the incredible detail without worrying (or being told!) we were blocking someone else’s view.

“Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” is a large exhibit of the artist’s original drawings, New Yorker covers, and the like. It includes panels from her book, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant, about the decline and deaths of her parents, showing how she processed that experience through her art. Indeed, much of the humor in her work results because we recognize our own vulnerabilities and absurdities. “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.”

There also are galleries devoted to the Yiddish theater (through August 14) and activism in New York, from suffragettes to civil rights, from Stonewall to immigration.

After we were finished there, crossed 104th street to El Museo del Barrio (free entry, because we’d been to the MCNY), which has a major exhibit on the fashion illustrations of Antonio Lopez. I’d read the nice review by Holland Carter in the New York Times and wanted to see it, but wasn’t sure where the museum is. Now I know. Easy to get to. The museum bills itself as “New York’s leading Latino cultural institution.” Only the ground floor of its big building is the gallery space. El Museo also sponsors a wide range of performing arts events, cultural celebrations, and educational programs.

Both museums have small cafés, but they are not up to birthday requirements, so we walked down Madison fifteen blocks or so (in the shade as much as possible) for lunch.

Thank you, Nancy, for being my friend for 43 years!

Museum of the City of New York – 1220 Fifth Avenue @ 103rd Street; small café, nice gift shop/book store

El Museo del Barrio – 1230 Fifth Avenue @104th Street; small café; gift shop

Fueling Creativity with—YES!—Boredom

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

In her faculty days, President of the Rhode Island School of Design Rosanne Somerson used an unexpected teaching tool: boredom. In a recent Metropolis essay, she says,

When I used to teach graduate students in furniture design, I would assign them an abstract problem that required them to sit in the studio and draw through free association over a long period of time without getting up from their seats.


After about 45 minutes, most students would start to squirm and get uncomfortable . . . I encouraged them to push through the discomfort because . . . right after the “squiggly” stage, something incredible happens.

Often, she said, students would stumble upon a completely new direction for their work, “something completely new and unexpected.” So, no getting up for a drink of water, no texting, no checking email, no snacks.

Somerson thinks of this purposeful elimination of distraction as creating time and space for the imagination to reawaken. Her drawing through free association sounds much like the freewriting practice writing gurus recommend for authors, with much the same motivation behind it–breakthrough.

Constant connectivity has made de-distracting our lives increasingly difficult. By filling our mindspace with constant and, let’s admit it, often mindless media consumption—yes, I watched the video of the cat playing the piano—we don’t clear the mental field for “creativity and discovery.” As Joshua Rothman said in a New Yorker essay last year, “Like typing, Googling, and driving, distraction is now a universal competency. We’re all experts.” Well, maybe not driving, not here in New Jersey.

If we set aside some distraction-free time, and, as Somerson suggests “bring back boredom,” we may find ourselves both more creative and more appreciative of today’s limitless fount of stimulating, intelligent, and entertaining distraction.


Where’s the Happy?

Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen

Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) & Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon) in Sense & Sensibility

Novelist Carrie Brown, in an essay in the Glimmer Train bulletin this month, advocates a reassessment of the components of conflict that writers incorporate in their work. Too often, she believes, less experienced writers, especially, lean too heavily on catastrophe. They include “too much dark and not enough light,” believing only the bad stuff is dramatic.

Bad stuff happening is the meat and potatoes of the genre I read most often—mysteries and thrillers. Yet even there, excess abounds. Authors feel compelled to pile up ever more bodies, to make the manner of death ever more grisly, to include female characters who might offer a hope of happiness only to put them out of reach, often because they’re dead, to give their protagonists’ souls so many dark places to hide that after a while, I wonder, “why does this character get out of bed in the morning?” When I start rolling my eyes, the author has lost me.

Brown believes “the mystery of people inclined toward charity or kindness has a drama as compelling as a story of decline and despair.” These positive forces are as powerful and as complicated as the impulses that propel other people toward evil. Jane Austen knew this. So did Dickens.

The key to presenting happiness well, she says, is to capture its complexity and contradictions. She uses an example “weeping with happiness.” Think of Emma Thompson in the movie Sense and Sensibility, crying with great, gasping sobs (see the clip!) when she realizes that Edward Ferrars is in fact not married. We are infinitely more moved by her happy tears than if she’d simply grinned delightedly.

It is not easy for people to be happy, and it is especially not easy for them to be happy when they have been beset by all the other fictional difficulties authors throw at them. But, Brown might argue, these characters can—and should—be happy for that precise reason. She says happiness depends “on the nearby presence of unhappiness to be felt most acutely. By necessity, it seems, the happiest man will also be the man most aware of unhappiness.” Going back to Sense and Sensibility, that would be lovely Colonel Brandon.

An example from Brown’s own work is her 2013 novel The Last First Day, in which a long-married couple—the headmaster of the Derry School for Boys and his wife—must face the declining health that forces his retirement. Said Reeve Lindbergh in her review of the book for The Washington Post, “Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. . . . Nevertheless, [the author shows] one can see with clarity and with appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings.” One is capable of a kind of happiness.

Princeton Literary Inspirations

Elvis, Fort WorthYesterday, poet Ciaran Berry and novelist Nell Zink read from their work as part of a series of author presentations at Princeton University, open to the public (that’s me!). On Friday, Man Booker Prize-winner and Ireland’s “first fiction laureate” Anne Enright will read excerpts from her most recent novel, The Green Road. I’ll be there!

The series of readings is conducted by the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, with Enright’s presentation sponsored additionally by the Fund for Irish Studies. (Last year’s fantastic presentation by Belfast author Glenn Patterson was under the Fund’s aegis also.)

Ciaran Berry

Coincidentally, award-winning poet Ciaran Berry also is an Irish poet and grew up in County Galway and County Donegal. He now directs the creative writing program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He doesn’t have the full-out accent, though.

Berry read several of his poems from various periods, including The Death of Elvis and Liner Notes. His particularly lovely poem For Shergar, Neither Ode nor Elegy, is a tribute to the legendary race horce Shergar, kidnapped and killed by the IRA, and includes this: “the past tense entering its perfect form.” It’s one of those, “wish I’d thought of that” lines.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink grew up in King George County, Virginia, but for many years has lived in Israel and Berlin, and has become a recent literary phenomenon in this country. She was introduced by faculty member Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) who said the classic “Nell” and its assertive “Zink” is “a name just waiting to be famous.”

Zink’s debut novel was The Wallcreeper, from which she read a passage about a married woman who plunges into an affair with a gas station attendant named Elvis—acknowledging the nifty segue from Berry’s poem. A New Yorker profile of Zink by Kathryn Schulz said The Wallcreeper “sounds like nothing you have ever read, and derives its bang from ideas you hadn’t thought to have.” Smart, funny, insightful. Likely to come to a bad end. In this setting, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole work, but the voice was terrific.

Her second excerpt was from the more recent novel Mislaid, a scene in which two gay men eating dinner in a crab restaurant make observations about other diners and themselves. The novel is notorious for its Caucasian main character Peggy, who reinvents herself and her white-blonde, blue-eyed daughter by claiming they are African Americans—“a high comedy of racial identity,” Schulz says, and not easy to pull off. About such tectonic plot shifts in her books, Eugenides said, “You cannot call them plot twists, because that implies some underlying straightness.”

In short, the subjects she takes up and the unflinching way she renders them make her, he said, “a bull in the china shop of contemporary American fiction.” More to read, more to read.

Landfill Harmonic

music, instrumentIn the early 20th Century, Marcel Duchamp transformed everyday objects into art he called “ready-mades.” The documentary Landfill Harmonic (trailer) shows how garbage from a Paraguayan landfill can be made into musical instruments.

The full-length film focuses on the residents of Cateura, near Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. They live next to a large landfill, where workers scavenge and sell recyclable detritus to make a living. Despite the dispiriting surroundings—ramshackle houses, dismal landscape—the people have a burgeoning enthusiasm for students’ music education. But they are too poor to buy enough instruments.

Musical director Favio Chávez turns to a garbage picker, Nicolás (Colá) Goméz, who begins to fashion instruments from curated debris—flutes made from water pipes, oil and paint cans for violins and cellos, and discarded X-rays for drum skins.

“The world sends us garbage…we send back music,” says Chávez.

Slowly, the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura hones its skills and sound. Then, a random social media connection catapults them into world view. The students pose with the Paraguayan flag decorated with the logo of the heavy metal group Megadeth, whose music they discovered on old cassettes found in the landfill. A Megadeth member sees the post and decides to visit the students. In 2014, he invites the Recycled Orchestra to join the band members on tour in Denver and accompany them on a song. This event propels more media coverage (Wired, Mother Jones, NPR, 60 Minutes) and invitations from across the globe to perform, including at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum in 2013.

Now, most of these music makers are committed to careers in music education and performance.

According to the film’s website, “the Orchestra has grown from just a few musicians to over 35. Their recent fame has piqued the interest of the families and children of the community in such a way that many children are now enrolling for music classes. The music school of Cateura does not have its own building yet, but teaches music and how to build recycled instruments to more than 200 kids of the landfill.”

The documentary, which benefitted from a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $200,000, has earned acclaim at independent and children’s film festivals around the world. Most recently, it won a 2016 Director’s Choice Award at the Sedona International Film Festival.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is bringing us the best from the recent Sedona IFF.

Joys of Overwriting

conversation, talking

(photo: Dmitry Ryzhkov)

In a provocative post at The Smart Set, Elisa Gabbert proposes the satisfactions of “writing that sounds like writing.” These days, readers—and writers, but I’ll get to that—are mostly told that prose shouldn’t call undue attention to itself. At the extreme (think Hemingway here) advice would have it that writing should be stripped of anything that announces itself as more than the everyday yakking one might hear on the street.

“Overwritten” is a harsh criticism. Like overripe, she says, the term has “judgment baked in.” (I’m not talking about amateurish overwriting, larded with unnecessary detail or trite observations here.) For my part, I enjoy being swept away in mind-stretching analogies and complex metaphors. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, fearlessly explored metaphors up to and sometimes beyond their full potential, a high-wire act teetering on the calamitous.

Here’s a nice one: “Hopes were wallflowers. Hopes hugged the perimeter of a dance floor in your brain, tugging at their party lace, all perfume and hems and doomed expectation. They fanned their dance cards, these guests that pressed against the walls of your heart.” And another, “I came to hate the complainers, with their dry and crumbly lipsticks and their wrinkled rage and their stupid, flaccid, old-people sun hats with brims the breadth of Saturn’s rings.” As a reader, I’m attracted to multilayered images like these. They make me stop and consider the challenge another mind has laid down. They are important to the story. They “sound like writing.”

Worse than work that is overwritten, Gabbert suggests, is that which is underwritten. Authors who don’t go to the trouble, whose work inspires “the sense that the author has low-balled me.” The occasional New Yorker short story has this arid style. Such prose offers nothing more than the words on the page, inspiring no images or connections for my mind to chew on.

From the writer’s perspective, coming up with a juicy and apt image is immensely satisfying. If it isn’t quite right, it isn’t good enough. I spent many hours refining the following sentence from a novel set in Rome: As the bus “skirted the huge Cimitero del Verano and approached the last turn, a cloud of diesel exhaust ballooned forth, and new motes of grit wafted toward the unblinking eyes of the cemetery’s stone angels.” Overwritten? Maybe, though it has a purpose in the story. Its aim is to spark in the reader a strong contrast between modern (bus) and ancient (stone angel); transient (a bus ride) and eternal (death). Even if readers skim that sentence, it may establish a mood, a picture.

Gabbert refers to Elmore Leonard’s famous “10 rules for good writing,” which he sums up by saying, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” This is a pretty good rule for his particular genre, crime fiction, but even he occasionally broke it with delicious metaphors, like “Wonderful things can happen,” Vincent said, “when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.” Or this conversation: “A: Anyone who looks like she does has to be somebody…” “B: What does she look like?” “A: An ice cream. I had a spoon I would have eaten her.”

Most of us can’t think fast enough to come up with such words in everyday conversation. They are writerly statements. At bottom, Gabbert says, “I like writing that knows what writing is for; it can express things you would never say.” In deviating from the well traveled road of everyday speech and thought, such writing steers closer to the truth.

Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano

Elton JohnHitting the jackpot in Las Vegas may be dicey, but you can count on Elton John’s Million Dollar Piano show, which debuted in 2011, for a first-class entertainment experience there that blends visual and musical wizardry.

Sir Elton’s show at the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace includes 20 top tunes in two hours. Joining him is a superb backup band including drummer Nigel Olsson, percussionist Ray Cooper and guitarist Davey Johnstone, each of whom has played with Sir Elton for over four decades. They know each other—and the material— so well that the groove is stirring and strong.

Sir Elton, who turns 69 in March, is celebrating a 50-year collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. His piano playing remains rollicking and his voice is still strong (for a limited time, you can hear a BBC interview with him here). The Colosseum has excellent sight lines and sound that brings the audience right into the mix. At the end of the show, some in the front rows go onstage to sing around the piano with Sir Elton.

It took Yamaha five years to design and engineer the piano expressly for the space and show. Co-producer and lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe explained, “I always thought that the piano would be an extraordinary thing, (but) I wasn’t sure how we would integrate it into the show. It wasn’t until she (the piano is named Blossom) was plugged in, turned on and tuned up that I suddenly felt like she had come home.”

The piano is an “electronic paintbox,” which augments and enhances each tune and includes photographic images and colorful effects. For example, when Sir Elton sings “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a photo montage appears showing him in his outlandish outfits at various stages in his performing career. For “Crocodile Rock,” the piano edges and backdrop are green glowing scales. According to the show’s website, the 19 animated films and videos that the piano is keyed to were completed in less than four months and involved 175 people working 24/7 in London. The “canvas” is a tennis-court-sized screen behind the band.

Co-producer Mark Fisher had free rein to imagine the set design. “What I was imagining was the creation of an over-the-top world that presented Elton as I saw him, dancing on the knife-edge that separates high art from low camp,” adding “I was looking to balance the huge size of the Colosseum stage with the human scale of one man at the piano.” Huge hanging keyboards, rockets and Sun King images, along with tall guard dogs whose gaze is focused on Sir Elton, add visual interest to the vast expanse.

Sir Elton is in Japan and Australia on tour now, but he and the Million Dollar Piano return to Caesar’s from April 16-30, 2016. It’s a sure bet for an evening of great entertainment. For more information, go to Caesar’s website.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings.

Literary Duds & Decor for Halloween

Halloween is just another opportunity to strut your literary predilections. Here’s a roundup of clever ideas that have crossed my desk this month.

pumpkin, book art

(photo: Topeka Library, creative commons license)

  • Turn books into Halloween art pieces – pulp fiction, 3-D constructions, collage, bent, torn, printed on—books can do more than sit on shelves
  • Jack o’ lanterns for readers – more Maurice Sendak than Jane Austen, but still . . . you know where the wild things are, and so will the neighbors!
  • Easy-to-challenging costumes – is the need “to die your hair” a bit too Freudian a slip? And for the Lizbeth Salander costume, find someone delicious to draw that dragon on your back!
  • Then check to see whether your costume idea is being overdone in your area with Google’s Frightgeist!
  • Miss Havisham

    “Did you hear that?” asks Miss Havisham.

    It may be more practical to look to short stories for costume inspiration (fewer people have probably read them)

  • But if you’d rather focus your creativity on writing, here’s a list of horror fiction ideas straight from recent news headlines – I have dibs on “Important Ohio bridge infested with thousands of spiders”
  • And a little of everything in this gallery of “literary Halloween” ideas. Love the “Nevermore” wreath.
  • Wearing your best Victorian garb, propping your foot on a pumpkin cushion, settle back to enjoy a “Hyde potion.” Bloody good cocktail, that.

(Thanks to Book Riot, Electric Literature, Pinterest, and HGTV for the inspiration!)