Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

World Aflame

Last week I posted information from a Wired article by Daniel Duane about the changing nature of Western wildfires. The fear and heroism that emerge in the American West, in Australia, and in other fire-prone areas are ripe for fiction. A writer can always hope that a compelling depiction of the difficulties and terror of wildfires might serve the broader purpose of encouraging better fire management policies, greater support for fire fighters, and improved public safety.

Among the many fascinating “made-for-fiction” aspects of the problem of fire intensity is how very intense fires mirror the experience of Allied bombing campaigns during the Second World War. British and American flight commanders learned they could burn cities down more easily than they could blow them up. And they could burn cities more easily if they knocked down the buildings—especially in neighborhoods with highly flammable wooden structures–before attempting to light them on fire.

That strategy is what caused the catastrophic damage to the German city of Dresden, pictured, producing “a single giant plume of heat and smoke (that) took on a shape similar to a giant thunderstorm,” Duane says. The firestorm had hurricane-force winds that magnified the destruction. These effects are similar to the firestorm experienced after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and predicted if a nuclear weapon hit a national forest in a 1964 US Forest Service report.

The western forests’ accumulation of long-burning heavy fuels—logs and fallen trees that smolder for long periods before bursting into flame—creates conditions similar to those that produced the smoking ruins of European cities. The key ingredient, Duane says, is “simultaneous burning of many small fires in a combination of light and heavy fuels over a large area with light ambient wind.” Over time, the small fires join, the heat plume begins to rise, and the whole catastrophe unfolds.

Duane’s article, like other research writers do, provides the vocabulary—and in this case, a hit at the dynamics of fire—that lets us write about catastrophe persuasively. It doesn’t make us experts, but it gets us a good way there. It leads us to asking the right questions.

This whole article is well worth reading, and part one of my summary is here.

Photo of Dresden by Art Tower, Pixabay.

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

Covid in an Era of Cyber Insecurity

12/3 Update: The attacks on health care entities attempting to address the Covid pandemic continue, with the latest hacker target–the cold chain necessary to distribute vaccines.

Since 2014, the United States has faced an increasing number of well-publicized cyber attacks. Although some have been severe, none have crossed the “traditional threshold of war,” as described by Garrett M. Graff in a November 2020 Wired article. To recap a few of these: In 2014, there was China’s theft of government personnel records and North Korea’s suspected hack of Sony; in 2016, Russia attempted to manipulate the presidential election; and more recently, we’ve seen numerous ransomware attacks on institutions and municipal governments, both large (Atlanta, Baltimore) and small.

In response to such threats, New York City created a citywide cyber command (the NYCCC) in July 2017. This centralized organization works across NYC agencies and offices “to prevent, detect, respond, and recover from cyber threats.” Geoff Brown, head of the NYCCC, described its challenges in a recent online briefing moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly. A consolidated approach certainly has face validity, compared to asking a hundred different entities with personnel of varying training, skill, and interest to cobble together their own separate, inevitably not interoperable security plans. As Brown said, “We can’t predict what’s coming around the curve, but if we build resilient systems overall, we can respond well.”

Over the last year, in the face of Covid, the NYCCC has used its technical environment to “defend the defenders.” When city agencies moved to remote operations, that process also was aided by the NYCCC’s work. Not surprisingly, cyber adversaries took advantage of concerns about Covid to expand their intrusion attempts, knowing people would more quickly respond to queries and data requests that appeared to be Covid-related and ignore potential red flags.

It was incredibly sobering, Brown said, to reflect on how, in the middle of a life-threatening crisis, the health network itself became so vulnerable. As a result, NYCCC has worked with both the public and the private hearth care sectors to increase awareness of cyber vulnerabilities and strengthen their defenses. Never forget, he warned, that without extreme vigilance, the consequences can be deadly. He cited how a ransomware attack led to the recent death of a German man.

Understandably, health care systems have a fundamental concern about patient privacy, although even that makes the system subject to attack. Clearly, such attacks are corrosive, with damage beyond their initial impact, by damaging citizens’ all-important trust in governmental, public health, and social institutions.

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.