Thanksgiving, 2020

turkey feather

Enjoy this special holiday (and the 4500 calories the average American reportedly consumes on Thanksgiving Day)! Stay safe now to make it  possible to be with your loved ones later.

Photo: Turkey feather, Josch13 for Pixabay.

Lighting and Sound: Theater Magic

Like everything else in theater, there’s much more to lighting and sound design than their obvious purpose of making on-stage action visible and audible. Through means bold and subtle, they enhance our experience and understanding.

Lighting Design

Lighting signals us where to look and who’s the current character of interest, not necessarily the speaker. The type of lighting used (harsh or flattering, bright or muted) further reveals something about the time and place where a scene occurs.

For the last class in my “how to watch a play course,” we watched Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau, as produced by the Lincoln Center Theater. The stage was bare, each scene defined by only a few pieces of furniture, and the lighting did much to reinforce each setting. In the high school scenes, cold, bright light mimicked fluorescents; in the teacher’s home, the light was warm, subdued, and her son’s white shirt glowed in the dimness. While we might not consciously notice this difference, we would definitely perceive it.

Lighting can create a mood and reinforce a production’s style. The fuchsia lighting of the dance scene in She Loves Me was not “realistic”—nor was the dance—but everything worked together to convey the sense of watching a confection.

Smaller effects are also important—the light through a window reflected on the wall, the change in daylight from morning to night, the use of “practical lights” like lamps, flashlights, or the light inside a refrigerator.

These days, the myriad light cues in a production are computerized and programmable. If a theater is outfitted with colored LED lights, even the desired color can be specified for the computer, though old-fashioned plastic “gels” are still in use.

Sound Design

Like lighting, sounds help establish time and place (crickets chirping, a clock chiming, sirens). They can be random or diegetic, if, in the world of the play, the actors know about and respond to them, like a ringing doorbell.

Sounds reinforce the reality of a scene, like a car door slamming or the splash of water from a faucet. Such sounds may be easily overlooked, if only because they fully meet our expectations of what a slamming car door or running water should sound like. Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., who led the course, said that, to create the multilayered sound we hear as “rain,” it takes a combination of at least three separate recordings.

Underscoring, or background music, playing softly under dialog, is not heard by the actors and contributes to mood. Sometimes incidental music ramps up between scenes, as it did in Pipeline, holding our attention while sets or costumes are changed.

Pipeline included some deceptively simple sounds. The teacher’s lounge scenes had a public address speaker, which produced the kind of slightly garbled, staticky announcements we remember from high school. The hospital scene also included public address announcements, but they obviously were the product of a high-end system. A tiny but telling detail and a deliberate choice.

World in Flames

wildfire, fire

Daniel Duane’s riveting article in the November issue of Wired, “The Fires Next Time,” should give the people who live in the American West, all of us who have family or friends who live there, and everyone who loves the area’s beauty yet another serious problem to worry about. A distraction from covid, maybe?

You might think my posts about impending disasters—cyberthreats, climate change, and others—suggest I’m teetering on some mental edge. Not so. For me, these “ripped from the headlines” topics open dramatic possibilities outside the overworked crime fiction obsession with serial killers, duplicitous spouses, and missing “girls.”

The wildfires article is laden with enough drama and information about Western wildfires to create some compelling fiction. Martin J. Smith used an advancing wildfire to great effect, ramping up the tension in his 2016 police procedural, Combustion. It can be done.

Duane points out that, though their number seems to be increasing, wildfires were even more frequent hundreds of years ago—before housing developments, ranches, and towns erupted in fire-prone areas. Fires were a natural part of the landscape. The frequency of these long-ago fires meant they stayed close to the ground, burning surface fuels, and the forest ecology evolved to handle such ground-fires of that type.

Even now that fire managers recognize the benefits of periodic burns, which get rid of that ground-level fuel, it’s had to make that case to private property owners in the path of a blaze. Thus, CalFire’s mandate continues to be to extinguish every one of them as fast as possible, Duane says.

His article begins with a deconstruction of the 2018 Carr fire in the northern Sacramento Valley and explains how in recent years, western wildfires have become much more dangerous. The models that let officials predict wildfire behavior, and therefore, how to fight a particular fire and when to evacuate residents, have become obsolete.

There’s a growing incidence of plume-driven fires, in which wind and weather are redirected by the rising heat column to make the fire burn hotter and move faster. The result is a fire tornado. In the Carr file, it was “a whirling vortex of flame 17,000 feet tall and rotating 143 mph.” A fire tornado sucks up flaming debris (like the remains of people’s homes) and scatters it like firebombs, igniting new blazes.

Modern fires move fast. In some instances, Australia’s bushfires moved faster than people could flee them. The 2018 Camp Fire burned 70,000 acres in 24 hours. For a while, Duane says, it consumed “about a football field a second.” That was the fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and sent Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. In court proceedings earlier this year, the company said, “No apology, no plea, no sentencing can undo [the fire’s] damage, and no passage of time can lessen the anguish we heard expressed in court.”

Next Week: How World War II Strategies Exposed Some Fire Secrets

Photo: Amissphotos for Pixabay

Staging and Choreography: Theater Magic

She Loves Me dance

For our deep dive into staging and choreography (generally, on-stage movement), my “how to watch a play” class viewed Roundabout Theatre’s 2016 production of the musical She Loves Me. You’ll recognize the story from its many incarnations, most recently in the film, You’ve Got Mail. Amalia and Georg are clerks in a perfume shop who really get on each other’s nerves. Yet they have the same secret: a pen pal with whom they are falling in love. Each other, of course.

Our class learned a handy theater word during the discussion of this musical, diegetic: Diegetic elements of a production—sounds, singing, dancing, movement—grow out of the story’s narrative. If there’s dancing, the actors know how to dance and know they’re dancing, as when the King of Siam and Anna waltz away to “Shall We Dance?” Quotidian action, by contrast, encompasses the daily, undramatic tasks the actors perform—buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe. The story doesn’t depend on these actions. When the Kyra Hollis character in Skylight makes a spaghetti dinner onstage, she’s engaged in quotidian action. A third type of movement is termed abstract, and it is neither of the others—like the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story singing their anthems while dancing in the streets. A high school classmate of mine scoffed at the film (which I loved passionately) because “guys don’t do that.” Abstract.

Why does analyzing the type of movement matter? Because, explained course director Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington D.C.’s Theater J, “it forces you to think about the purpose of the choreography (movement),” and what that choice conveys about the mood, the character, the story’s time and place, or even the plot. When an actor puts a gun in a desk drawer, you know that weapon’s coming out again. Or, recall the movement created by the turntable in Hamilton. Why did the creators choose to have that? To me, all that swirling expressed the turmoil of the era, the passage of time, and the evolution of multiple characters’ relationships.

When deconstructed for our class, the patterns of movement in She Loves Me turned out to be unexpectedly intricate, creating satisfying, if subliminal, messages. Movement—even abstract movement—needs to be motivated, which means that actors can move on certain lines, but moving on other lines will create confusion. As Amalia is about to meet her pen pal, her movements in “Will He Like Me?”—alternately walking forward and backtracking—were timed perfectly to the anticipation and hesitation expressed in the lyrics.

A musical typically has a lot of staging and choreography, but even the two-person play Red we watched had a lot of movement (much of it diegenic). In fact, with only two actors, movement is critical to keeping the story going and the audience interested. Staging helps the audience know where to look, as characters emerge in prominence and others melt into the background. And some staging is created just for the beauty of the composition. Nothing wrong with that.

If you’d like to take one of these excellent courses, check out the Theater J website. New classes are starting soon!

Creating a Character: Theater Magic

Into the Woods
Into the Woods

My “how to watch a play” class recently watched a London production of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim fairy tales mashup. It was an excellent lead-in to that week’s discussion on creating a character, because the show is stuffed with them.

Course leader Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Washington DC’s Theater J, described the process of creating a character as a collaboration between actor and director. You see this collaborative process in action in the comedy Noises Off, about a play-in-rehearsal that goes terribly wrong. In the excellent film version, Christopher Reeve plays the part of Gary Lejeune, who badgers his director (Michael Caine) about his character’s motivation. The more banal the action, the more puzzled Gary is (see one of those scenes here).

Character creation starts with casting. Directors are looking for talent, sure, but also for certain personal and physical qualities. They take into account some or all of the actor’s race-gender-age-body type to the extent those matter for specific roles. If they’re casting a musical, singing and dancing ability may outweigh acting chops.

Some productions may need an actor with name recognition (to boost ticket sales) or with specific skills. Juggling. A little soft-shoe. Productions of Top Dog/Underdog require an actor to do a compelling demonstration of three-card-monte. Not just the moves, but also the confidence in handling the cards.

A stage adaptation of the novel Midwives I saw last year included a jarring change from the original book. Black actors played a clergyman and his wife newly relocated to rural Vermont. For me, this casting raised a lot of questions external to the story. How had a couple from the Deep South been received in 99% white Vermont? What propelled them to make such a dramatic change in their environment? Did they choose a home birth because they felt unwelcome in the local health system? Such implications kept taking me out of the drama and made their characters seem opaque.

By contrast, my class was surprised that, in the production of Into the Woods we watched, the cast was all-white. If ever a play lends itself to diversity, that would seem to be it. We did enjoy the actor who played Little Red—plus-sized and a few years older than the usual choice. This Little Red actually lines up better with the script. When the wolf compliments her plump flesh, well . . .

In a great many roles, the race or even the gender of a particular character is irrelevant, and non-traditional casting not only works, it’s refreshing (think Hamilton). No longer do theaters and audiences assume the default race is white. You may recall the flap when the Vietnamese engineer in Miss Saigon was played by Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce.

They say ninety percent of directing is casting, and certainly, it’s the first step in bringing characters to life.

The Perfect Weapon

The Perfect Weapon, HBO, David Sanger

In mid-October, HBO released its documentary, The Perfect Weapon, about growing cyber security risks (trailer). A recent Cipher Brief webinar featured David Sanger, national security correspondent for The New York Times, who wrote the book on which the documentary was based, and Mary Brooks, who contributed to both his book and the documentary, and was moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly.

Creating a documentary based on a detailed, fascinating, and chilling 340-page book is a challenge. It had to be more interesting than 000s and 111s scrolling down the screen. There was a history to lay out. Director John Maggio decided to render the technology aspects of earlier cyberattacks in broad strokes and to humanize the story by focusing on the victims. This approach not only revealed how many sectors of society are vulnerable to cyber criminals, but also how diverse are the sources of these attacks.

The first cyber attack receiving much play in the United States was North Korea’s 2014 takedown of Sony in response to a movie it didn’t like. For that segment, Maggio’s team could interview actors and executives. It was harder to get the story of the next significant attack—this one by the Iranians on the Sands Casino in Las Vegas—because the casino executives don’t want to publicize it.

Since then, attacks have continued, most recently with ransomware attacks on US hospitals already stretched thin by the coronavirus, and on local governments in Florida, for example—after crippling attacks on Baltimore and Atlanta.

Though costly and significant, these episodes have not been serious enough to trigger retribution by the US government. “They are short of war operations,” Sanger said, “and deliberately calculated to be so.” The potential for much more consequential acts definitely exists. It is known, for example, that malware has been placed in the US power grid, where it sits. Officials don’t want to talk about it, or remove it, ironically, because they don’t want the bad actors to understand our detection capabilities.

Of course, the United States isn’t inactive in this arena. In 2010, our government. and Israel used the malicious computer worm Stuxnet to disable Iran’s nuclear program, an action US officials won’t admit to even now, Sanger said. Unfortunately, the destructive Stuxnet code escaped into the wild and is now available to many black-hat hackers. Stuxnet “didn’t start the fire,” he said, “but it was an accelerant.”

Who is behind an attack can be murky. For various reason, organized crime has increasingly muscled its way into the cyber-threat business. Governments hire hackers or external organizations to create havoc, because it gives them deniability. “Not us,” they say.

The US Cyber Command’s goal is to “defend and advance national interests.” However, the job of preventing attacks is difficult. It’s a challenge that requires considerable imagination, given an environment where the risks are escalating rapidly, the technology is improving constantly, and the targets have no boundaries. You may have read about recent threats to COVID vaccine research.

What exactly are the “national interests,” when American businesses have suppliers, clients, and customers all over the world? Companies don’t want to be perceived as working against those relationships. Google, for example, declined to participate in a military program to make drone attacks more accurate. Similarly, though Microsoft and the Cyber Command were both attempting to disable TrickBot in the last few weeks, their efforts were independent and uncoordinated.

Thomas Donahue, Senior Analyst at the Center for Cyber Intelligence has said, “We cannot afford to protect everything to the maximum degree, so we’d better figure out what cannot fail,”

The documentary—and the book—lay out what’s at stake for all of us. Past posts on this topic:
* Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing
* Cyberthreats: Coming to a Company Near You

Seeing a Play Twice: The In-Between

This fall I’m taking a five-week ZOOM course on “How to Watch a Play,” led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. Prior to the first class, everyone watched online a 2018 production of the Tony-award-winning play Red by John Logan. I’d seen it a few years ago and didn’t remember it all that well.

This London version had Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko (born in 1903; committed suicide in 1970) and Alfred Enoch as his assistant, Ken. In the script, Ken arrives to help Rothko with the task of creating nearly 40 enormous canvases to hang in Manhattan’s then-new Seagram Building. He stretches canvas, he mixes paint. Red paint. The paintings are undeniably red, in varying shades, and it’s a tribute to both artist and playwright that audience members can go from “my kid could do that” to “I get it” in about 90 minutes.

A filmed play has plusses and minuses. Closeups are an advantage. Actors and directors manage stage elements so that you’re looking in the right place at the right time; with the camera, the decision where to look is made for you. What’s lost is the sense of community a live audience provides. (Adam cited a 2017 study that found audience members’ hearts begin to beat in sync.)

Adam distinguishes between a play and a production. The play is the script. Everything that brings it to life (actors, sets, costumes, lighting, music) is the production. And, when it comes to production, he says, “Everything’s a choice.”

When you see different productions of the same play, those choices become apparent. One version may be immensely enjoyable, another a big disappointment. A few years ago, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre produced an intimate version of My Fair Lady with no orchestra, just two pianos. A delightful choice. We’ve seen six or seven productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—from Broadway to community theater—and enjoyed each one. Great choices.

Then, the disasters: Romeo and Juliet in a tiny theater where the set design included a traditional second-floor balcony and, when Juliet was up there, the audience could see her only from the knees down; a particularly awful Hamlet (referred to at our house as “the nude Hamlet”); and A Christmas Carol with Tiny Tim played by an adult. Cue eyeroll. Yet, whatever their choices, a production team doesn’t totally control your reactions. External factors intrude. Say you eat a bad dinner before the show, or an actor reminds you of someone you loathe (or love!), or the set calls to mind your terrifying Aunt Gertrude’s living room. Between my first and second viewing of Red, as it happens, I visited Houston and saw the Rothko Chapel, hung all around with his large, dark, ominous paintings. Because of that experience, when Rothko says, “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. . . One day the black will swallow the red,” I took so much more from that line. To me, that’s exactly what happened with Rothko, both literally and metaphorically.

For Spooky, Edgar Allan Poe Has Staying Power

The Raven, MWA, Poe

One hundred seventy-one Octobers ago, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore. Judging by the frequency with which cultural references to him and his works pop up—Poe and Raven masks, the Edgar Awards, t-shirts, mugs, you-name-it—it seems he haunts us still. Now, in 2020, perhaps his shade’s message is, “What didn’t you get about ‘The Masque of the Red Death’?”

The late mystery writer Julian Symons’s Poe biography, The Tell-Tale Heart, is a painful journey. Time and again, Poe’s precarious financial situation would start to brighten, and time and again, he would get in his own way, sabotaging his prospects.

Poe’s parents were itinerant actors. His heavy-drinking father deserted the family in Poe’s first year, and his mother died of consumption when he was two. Certainly retrospective psychoanalysts of his personality make much of these early traumas. For his part, Symons believes a combination of predilection and early experience marked Poe, ‘and his life can best be understood as a play in which he half-consciously cast himself as a tragic hero.’

He dropped out of the University of Virginia, resentful of the aristocratic young men he met there, and moved to Maryland. In Baltimore, he connected with his aunt and later married her not-quite fourteen-year-old daughter. Having a family gave him a sense of purpose, but the problem then and ever after was earning money.

Today we know Poe best for his short stories, and that one poem. Yet Poe’s greatest desire was to be a poet and literary critic, to have his own magazine. Unfortunately, the caustic reviews he wrote for literary journals cost him many friendships and connections with people who might have helped him. Eventually, Symons says, ‘his drinking and critical quarrelsomeness were too well known for anybody to employ him.’ A modern reader can’t help but think Poe suffered from some psychiatric disorder that today might have been treated.

His last, disastrous decision was to name Rufus Wilmot Griswold his literary executor. For reasons of his own, Griswold made false and scurrilous accusations about Poe’s work and character that tarnished the author’s reputation for nearly a century. To a degree, they persist today.

In the last couple of years, I’ve written two short stories inspired by Poe’s “Berenice,” in which a young man becomes obsessed with his wife’s teeth. After she dies, he yanks them out before her body is relegated to the family crypt. Alas, (and you know this is coming), she isn’t dead.

They appeared in an entertaining anthology of contemporary stories with roots in classic Poe called Quoth the Raven, edited by Lyn Worthen; and in an anthology with the premise that Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate the strange doings Poe set up. It’s Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Brian and Derrick Belanger. No doubt Poe would never have imagined that the stories he dismissed so casually just to put money in his pocket would continue to fire other writers’ imaginations these many years later.

Photo: c2.staticflickr.com

Technology & Elections

vote, voting, election

A set of articles in the current issue of Wired discuss the part technology can play in improving our elections. Skeptical, all things considered? You should be. Still, here’s what to watch for.

Candidates and Facebook

James Barnes, a Facebook employee embedded with the Trump campaign in 2016 (think about that a moment), has had second thoughts and is now working to promote Joe Biden at the political nonprofit Acronym. It produces digital media campaigns for progressive candidates and causes. By the end of summer, though, very few voters were undecided, so their campaigns weren’t making converts. One can only hope that the Trump campaign’s October efforts to outspend Biden on Facebook ads in several battleground states, according to this CNBC story, will fall flat too.
Read: PW Singer’s Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media.

The Voting Process

To be a state election official is to be plagued with nightmares. “We all knew we were headed into what would be a contentious election year,” said Arizona’s Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs, in a model of understatement in this Wired article by Lily Hay Newman. Plus, they know they have a derailing technical problem or two: In Georgia’s disastrous primary, for example, all 159 counties were using new machines for the first time. Plus, the pandemic. Officials have had to scramble to find polling places. Traditional venues—schools, community centers, churches—balked. Experienced poll workers? A vanishing species.

Texas election officials and a team of university-based computer scientists, Wired reports, have devised a way to use advanced encryption technology—homomorphic cryptography—to improve our notoriously vulnerable voting machines. (Just using the term, I’ve already approached the limit of my understanding of how it works.) The machine assigns a lengthy ciphertext to each vote and prints out a short identifier, akin to a bit.ly link. Voters can use these to verify their votes are “in there.” Part of the beauty is that votes do not need to be decrypted to be counted, so privacy is maintained.
Read: James McCrone;s Faithless Elector, about a member of the electoral college who doesn’t stick to the script or McCrone’s brand new book, Emergency Powers, about how far someone will go to hang on to the presidency. Hmmmmm.

Secure Vote Counting

In this election, several states will use “risk-limiting audits” to validate results. These methods link the scale of the audit to the victory margin. If a candidate wins big, even a small sample of randomly selected ballots can confirm the results. In closer contests, a larger sample is needed. Bottom line: Unfortunately, processes, equipment, and practices vary widely, state to state, and nationally, the lack of investment in improving them contributes to a loss of faith in our elections that eventually damages every one of us.

Good Covid Ideas from Bill Gates

Bill Gates has probably spent more time thinking about public health—not just in the developing world—than almost anyone who isn’t a medical epidemiologist. In a 2015 TED talk, he warned about the likelihood of a pandemic and his bottom-line was, “We’re not ready.”

Being right isn’t always gratifying. Yet, in the current issue of WIRED, Gates doesn’t cast blame on the skeptics. “We can do the postmortem at some point. We still have a pandemic going on, and we should focus on that.”

His message is for public officials and private industry alike. A particularly urgent need is for a rapid self-test for Covid 19. Most tests today, which require people to wait days for results, are essentially useless, Gates says, and a big barrier to quicker test results is the insurance reimbursement system. Tardy tests are reimbursed at the same rate as timely ones. Why not build in a financial incentive for speedy response and a penalty—including no reimbursement at all—for delayed results?

Another shortfall is that the US should help the vaccine companies build extra factories for the billions of doses that will be needed around the world if the pandemic is to be effectively stopped. Although this would be expensive, he says it’s a fraction of the money that will be lost in a tanking worldwide economy. “In terms of saving lives and getting us back to normal,” that expenditure is a smart and essential investment. Interesting.