Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Director Vera Sloan's Thoughts on Or,

“Our play will shortly ricochet between a dense array of seeming opposites:
Spy or poetess, actress or whore
Male or female, straight or gay—or both
Wrong or righteous, treacherous or true
Lust or love, cheap hackney trash or art
Now or then, a distant fervent age
Or this, our time of mingled hope and fear.
And yet despite all seeming diff’rences
Those ors divide less than they subtly link
And what seem opposite and all at odds
Are in their deepest nature most the same.”

When I first read the lines above in Or, I recognized that Liz Duffy Adams' story of the delightfully revolutionary Aphra Behn, amid its poetry and comedy and eroticism, is also a play about all of the deeply human, potentially world-changing beauty of quantum physics (stay with me, drama majors!).

Human beings love neat little boxes. We find comfort in the tidiness of everyone being one thing or the other, and we have an affinity for the belief that the past is reassuringly distant and pleasant, always a “simpler time.” But those ideas are comfortable illusions. Astrophysicists have begun to offer explanations of truths that artists have long understood – time is not linear, and all dichotomies are false. The past is right now, and all of the aspects of who we are, even those that seem contradictory, are simultaneously true. When we explore stories and people of by-gone eras, we can choose to revel in nostalgia, distancing ourselves from a romanticized idea of who people were then. Or, we can choose instead to fully embrace how much all of us, across time and borders and desires, are truly the same.

“We are all made of star stuff,” in the words of Carl Sagan. “We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden” in the words of Joni Mitchell. If they are both right (and they are), and if all of the emotional contradictions and complexities of human beings haven't changed much since Aphra Behn took London by storm in the 1660's (and they haven't), then what do both art and science have to tell us about ourselves and everyone else on the planet? I hope that you see something of yourself tonight on this stage, even though the people you'll see may not immediately seem to be much like you at all. I hope that this reminds you, as it always reminds me, of how deeply similar you must be to people from other places, or of unfamiliar faiths, or who simply live or love a bit differently than you do. That's one of my favorite things about this work and this play, and I'm thrilled to bits that you're here to share in that.

-Vera Sloan

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Who Is Liz Duffy Adams?

Liz Duffy Adams is originally from Ipswitch, Massachussets and holds a dual American and Irish citizenship. She has a BFA from NYU's Experimental Theater Wing, and an MFA in Playwriting from Yale School of Drama. Ms. Adams was the 2012–2013 Briggs-Copeland Visiting Lecturer in Playwriting at Harvard University.
In 2012, she was awarded the "Women of Achievement Award" from the Women's Project Theater. She’s also received a 2010 Lily Award and a 2008 Weston Playhouse Music-Theatre Award, the 2005 Will Glickman Playwright Award from Theatre Bay Area, among others.
Ms. Adams also an alumna of New Dramatists (2001-2008). Other notable New Dramatists playwrights include Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Jen Silverman, Julia Cho, Qui Nguyen, and Kate Fodor, so she’s in fairly illustrious company.

Or, premiered Off Broadway at Women’s Project Theater and has been produced numerous times since, including at the Magic Theater and Seattle Rep.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Who Is Aphra Behn?

Aphra Behn, portrait by Peter Lely
Shockingly little is known of the first 27 years of Aphra Behn's life, due mostly to the unusual absence of any records of her existence during that time. Much of the biographical information presented in this play is true… or at least as likely to be true as any other scholarly theories. What we do know is that she was a spy for the English crown who went on to be one of the first professional female playwrights in the English language. While surprisingly traditional in some of her ideas, including her fierce loyalty to Charles II, her work contained ideas about gender, race, and sexuality that would have been extremely progressive from any writer of the time, but especially a woman. She paved the way for a new generation of English women to not only write professionally but live independently, inspiring 20th Century author Virginia Woolf to comment, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." She died at the (assumed) age of 48, her tomb inscribed with the words, "Here lies a proof that wit can never be defense enough against mortality."

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bessie Smith

During The Voice of the Prairie, Leon Schwab cuts to a song by Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith was in fact a real singer and quite extraordinary. From

Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of seven children. Her father, a Baptist minister, died soon after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings. Around 1906, her mother and two of her brothers died and Smith and her remaining siblings were raised by their aunt. It was around this time that Smith began to perform as a street singer, accompanied on the guitar by one of her younger brothers. In 1912, Smith began performing as a dancer in the Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, of which blues vocalist Ma Rainey was a member. Rainey took Smith under her wing, and over the next decade Smith continued to perform at various theaters and on the vaudeville circuit. 
By the early 1920s, Smith had settled down and was living in Philadelphia, and in 1923 she met and married a man named Jack Gee. That same year, she was discovered by a representative from Columbia Records, with whom she signed a contract and made her first song recordings. Among them was a track titled "Downhearted Blues," which was wildly popular and sold an estimated 800,000 copies, propelling Smith into the blues spotlight. With her rich, powerful voice, Smith soon became a successful recording artist and toured extensively. Going forward with an idea presented by her brother and business manager Clarence, Smith eventually bought a custom railroad car for her traveling troupe to travel and sleep in. 
In her recording career, Bessie Smith worked with many important jazz performers, such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet and pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson. With Johnson, she recorded one of her most famous songs, "Backwater Blues." Smith also collaborated with the legendary jazz artist Louis Armstrong on several tunes, including "Cold in Hand Blues" and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle." By the end of the 1920s, Smith was the highest-paid black performer of her day, and had earned herself the title "Empress of the Blues."

So she would have been popular in the times of Davey and Leon's traveling radio show. If you'd like to hear her for yourself. here's Bessie Smith singing perhaps her biggest hit, "Downhearted Blues."

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Radio Station Naming Conventions

Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri I was aware that AM radio stations on "my" side of the Mississippi river began with the letter K and on the other side of the river started with the letter "W" but I never really knew WHY. So for The Voice of the Prairie I did a little digging.

It turns out it actually started with telegrams. Telegram operators created a series of short abbreviated call signs to identify the locations of telegrams - often to military and commercial ships. But because there was no standardization on these call signs, things got super confusing - operators could just make up their own call signs and some got re-used and it got messy. To attempt to alleviate the problem, the Bureau of Navigation (part of the Department of Commerce), began assigning three-letter call signs to American ships in the early 1910s. Ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico got a K prefix and in the Pacific and the Great Lakes got a W. Why the letters W and K? Nobody actually seems to know any more.

In any case, in 1912 there was a big conference called the London International Radiotelegraphic Convention, and ranges of letters were assigned to each of the participating nations. The U.S. was told to keep using the W and most of the K range, as well as N and A (largely for military communications). Canada was assigned C and Mexico was given X. The call sign combination was allowed to be 3 or 4 letters in length.

It's at around this time that AM radio started to gain traction. Like we see in The Voice of the Prairie, some upstart mavericks began to set up radio towers and start their own radio stations. So in 1928 the Federal Radio Commission (now called the FCC - Federal Communications Commission)  planned to assign licensed ground based commercial radio stations in the same way, except the directions somehow got flipped. Eastern stations got W call signs and the Western ones got Ks. Where exactly did the FRC draw the line between East and West? For a while it ran north from the Texas-New Mexico border, but shifted in 1923 to follow the Mississippi River and more accurately split the country in half.

It's never been a totally strictly regulated standard and a number of old radio stations got grandfathered in, but going forward radio stations have tended to follow in that standard. For about a year in the 1920s, the Bureau of Navigation that decided that all new stations were going to get a K call sign no matter where they were located. Still other exceptions were made by special request, station relocations, ownership changes, and even human error. So, it's a standard except for when it's not.

The letters after the W or K? They're a bit more nonsensical. Some are named after their parent company, like WABC or KCBS. Chicago's WGN stands for "World's Greatest Newspaper"  and Chicago's WTTW stands for  “Windows to the World.” Some in the east actually reference the heir station's number, like KTWO and KFOR or the Roman numerals in call names like KXII or WIXT.