Showing posts with label Chicago. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chicago. Show all posts

05 August 2016

Immersion and Interaction, (Non)Choice and Consequence


By Art Taylor

On Wednesday of this week, my wife and I had the privilege of experiencing Learning Curve, a "theatrical journey within the walls of a Chicago Public School," created by Chicago's Albany Park Theater Project in conjunction with Third Rail Projects.

From the APTP production Learning Curve


Albany Park Theater Project is run by my old college roommate David Feiner and his wife Maggie Popadiak, and we've seen previous productions by them, all conceived, designed, and performed by local high school students and regularly drawing on those students' own stories; the last show we saw, Aqui Estoy, dealt with the struggles of undocumented workers and children of undocumented immigrants struggling to find their way through the system.

We've also seen an earlier production by Third Rail Projects: Then She Fell, which reimagined Alice in Wonderland within the walls of a mental institution. While that's already a provocative concept, the most exciting aspects of the show were the intimacy of it (only 15 audience members) and the immersiveness and individuality of the experience. As the play began, audience members were led solo or in very small groups into other rooms of the institution to begin a curated journey through the story—ultimately with no two people having the same adventure. Along the way, Then She Fell also frequently became interactive, with cast members asking questions of audience members, having them join in the action to some small degree, even offering food and drink (the tea party a particular highlight, as in Carroll's book, of course).

I give this background to set the stage (excuse the pun) for Learning Curve, which roamed throughout the classrooms of the Ellen Gates Starr High School and into other corners of the institution: a library, a storage room, bathrooms, more. As the experience unfolded, we learned with startling immediacy about some of the struggles and the triumphs of today's high school students: the many challenges of standardized testing, the pressures to fit in or to try to figure out where you fit, the anxieties of young love, the difficulties for English as a Second Language students, the boredom and tedium alongside ambition and aspiration. It was startling to learn that only half of the students entering Chicago high schools actually graduate from those schools. It was startling to learn how quickly teachers can burn out or be fired, how frequent the turnover in those roles. But even in talking about those last couple of points, I need to stress that Learning Curve is less informational than experiential. We weren't simply learning about Chicago high school students; we audience members became students ourselves—complete with IDs, as you can see below.



What had the most lasting effect on me, however, was a pair of scenes that challenged me more personally—and that speak directly to what's unique about this approach to theater and the new territories audiences are drawn into by a production like this.

After a homeroom scene shared by all audience members, my wife and I were quickly brought into our first individual scene—part of which was witnessing a young boy being bullied by two other boys in a bathroom. I knew that this scene was in the show, having read about it briefly in the opening paragraph to the very positive Chicago Tribune review. (I didn't read all of that review, dodging spoilers, and advise others who might see the show to stop reading my blog post now as well.) But while I was prepared for what I was about to witness, I wasn't ready to deal with my role in the scene—by which I don't mean an actual role because, after all, I was of course just an audience member.

Or was I?

Just prior to the bathroom bullying scene, we'd already had both two of the characters/actors talk with us, engaging us directly in conversation. In those exchanges, we weren't merely immersed in the action; we were interacting as well—participants. Then we found ourselves urged into the bathroom where the bullying took place: two bullies, as I said, one of them in an ROTC uniform, victimizing a third.

Without offering too many details: Somewhere in the middle of the scene, I wondered whether I should intervene. If you see something, say something—do something. Right? But we were audience members, trained as theater-goers to be watchers, so....

But then, on the other hand, we were just interacting with these kids a few moments before, so....

But the play's instructions (delivered via morning announcements over the PA) had cautioned us to speak only when spoken to, so....

But really the scene wanted me to ask myself what I would have done if I were a real high school student, so....

But wait, it was just a play, so....

But.... So.... 

The bullying escalated, then ended. On the way out, the first of the bullies gave me a quick "thank you"—amping up the volume of those questions already echoing in my head.

We interacted briefly with the bullied boy afterwards—again I hope to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that I myself felt inept. Then we moved into the next scene, which turned out to be a Junior ROTC classroom. And there in the middle of it stood the second of those bullies, the one in the ROTC uniform, who made eye contact immediately, gave me a little smirk and an uplift of his chin, a recognition of kinship, it seemed, and another expression of gratitude for my complicity.

Quickly, the class was brought into formation, went through inspection, lined up beside our desks, the bully standing directly in front of me, his posture perfect. Soon, the instructor has us recite the ROTC pledge, repeating the words after him—about conducting ourselves in ways to bring credit to our families and schools and fellow cadets and country, about practicing good citizenship, about being accountable for our actions and deeds, about being the future of the United States of America.

In front of me, the bully repeated each of the instructor's phrases with vigor and enthusiasm. At first, I followed too, but quickly—watching the boy, this bully, hearing him, hearing myself.... I do not know quite how to explain this adequately, but I found I could not continue to repeat the words of the code, physically could not. My mouth trembled. My words faltered. My forehead tightened, and there was a tightening too behind my eyes. I could feel tears building there, hot and angry and shameful.

Frankly, never had I had so visceral and really so vicious a reaction to a theatrical experience in my life.

There is more to be said here about the play, and about those characters in particular—those and others and the actors and actresses behind those roles. But I don't want to reveal too much about the storyline for anyone who might be fortunate to have tickets to the sold-out run of the show. Instead, I wanted to mention my reactions as a testament to the power of Learning Curve and to the skills of the actors here and throughout the production—their shared abilities to bring us into this world so vividly and viscerally.

Once, many years ago, I saw a production of Death of a Salesman at the Kennedy Center, with Dustin Hoffman in the role of Willy Loman—a heart-breaking performance. Around the time I attended the show, the Washington Post review included the story of a woman in the audience and her reactions to a small but significant turning point in the play, a small gesture Hoffman made to indicate that Loman was, finally, lost. The woman, somewhere in the audience, stood up and shouted "Oh, no! Don't!"

Reading that experience, I thought, "How odd. How embarrassing. How silly."

My personal experiences in Learning Curve couldn't help but remind me of that story—and to help me revise my opinion of her reaction, which clearly wasn't odd or embarrassing or silly at all.

Instead, that story and my own reaction to Learning Curve reveal how easily we can get lost inside a bit of storytelling—lost in such a way that maybe we find something important and meaningful at the same time.




04 May 2016

Spying on Chicago, for a Good Cause


by Robert Lopresti

Take a look at the photograph on the right.  Notice the store I am standing in front of?  Or of which I am standing in front?  Boy, was that awkward.

Okay.  Last month I visited Chicago and wandered, not for the first time, into the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Company.  You are probably thinking that it is a spy shop, selling listening devices, cameras smaller than a grain of rice, and the like.  You are, of course, wrong.

As the employees confidentially explain to each newcomer: the store is a front.  It is secretly the headquarters for 826CHI, "a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write." So anything you buy in the shop (mostly writing-related material) supports the real work of the organization, which is encouraging kids to write.  Pretty cool, huh?

There are actually seven 826 branches promoting writing in different cities, and each has its own cunning disguise.  For example, in San Francisco 826 Valencia hides behind the Pirate Supply Store.  Clearly these people take kids seriously, but not themselves.

Among the merchandise for sale in the Secret Agent Supply Shop is a small selection of books, including the works of novelist Dave Eggers, which is fair because he is one of the two founders of the organization.  More power to him.

But I was more interested in another book I saw there.  I picked it up and told the enthusiastic salesperson "I have a story coming out in the 2016 edition!"

"Really?  That's great!"

Out of Print Clothing Company
"Yup, and the same story has been selected for the Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror collection."

"Oh, now you're just bragging."

"Damn straight," I said.  "I've been writing for forty years and this is my first best-of appearance.  Of course I'm going to brag about it."  Which, you may notice, I just did.

Of course, I had to buy something and I did.  See the photo.

Next time you are in Chicago I recommend you drop by.  You don't even need a secret password.

15 April 2015

Incident on the CTA


by Robert Lopresti

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to Chicago to visit our favorite offspring.  We knew it was going to be a late arrival, but it turned out to be later than we thought, because the plane that was supposed to become ours was delayed by a medical emergency.   After the paramedics got the person off the plane, and then everyone else deboarded, there was more of a wait while they replaced the medical equipment that had been used.

And as a crime writer, naturally I was wondering what happened to the poor soul.  Another story I will never know the end of.  None of my business, I know.

By the time we picked up our bags at O'Hare it was after 1 AM.  We climbed into a metro train and headed toward the kiddo's apartment.  A few stops later a man got on board.  He was in his thirties, leather jacket, looked like he might have Irish ancestry.  Ignoring the half dozen people in the car he sat down, flipped open his phone and made a call. 

"Yeah I'm on the Blue Line. Meet me at Addison. I had to take the train cause the law was circling around. I'm at Addison. I'm getting off. Meet me here."

And off he went.

Oddly enough, my first thought was not writerly, i.e. why is he running from the cops?  It was readerly: If this  was Detroit I would think I was in an Elmore Leonard novel  Boston: obviously George V. Higgins.  But who writes books from the criminal's point of view, set in Chicago?  Brian suggested Sean Chercover, but I have not had the pleasure.

My second thought was: Maybe this was that guy's elevator story.  If you aren't familiar with the concept, watch Peter Bogdonavich retelling what happened after he interviewed Alfred Hitchcock in a hotel in New York City.  

After that, I admit I started thinking like a writer.  But I felt I didn't have enough background to build a story about it.  On the other hand, my friend Andi Mahala Schechter promptly suggested he was dropping off a ransom payment.  I dunno.  Felt like he more sinister than that.  My sister Joann Scanlon asked if I called the police.  And told them what, I replied.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I'm okay with that.  Have you ever felt like you walked into a novel?  By whom?


17 March 2015

The St. Patrick’s Day Crime Blotter, and a Whole Lot of Blarney***



by Paul D. Marks


Crime Blotter d1

Valentine_Day_massacre
In honor of my post falling on St. Patrick’s Day and in keeping with the crime nature of this blog, I thought I should pay homage to the day with the St. Patrick’s Day Crime Blotter.

Everybody knows the famousinfamousSt. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. So one might think St. Patrick got short shrift. I mean in a world where “my massacre is bigger than your massacre” is important stuff, one might think St. Paddy and St. Val would come to blows over who has the better holiday and, of course, who has a more impressive spot on the crime blotter.

After all, See’s Candy makes marshmallow-shaped hearts for Valentine’s Day, but what do they do for St. Patrick’s Day? A handful of chocolates in green boxes and green tinfoil and chocolate “potatoes”. Major slight. Which reminds me of the line from the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be or Not to Be, where Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) says, “They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Fuhrer is going to end up as a piece of cheese!”

Well, the chocolate potato is like the cheese, especially compared to marshmallow hearts. Where the herring fits in I’m not quite sure.

So, let’s take a little quiz:

Alex, I’ll take St. Paddy’s Day deaths for $100, please.

Who was the first St. Patrick’s Day death?

Uh, that’s a tough one, let me think. St. Patrick.

Right you are. That’s why the holiday is observed on the date of his death, March 17th.

*     *    *

Now, let’s see. It seems St. Val’s Day is in the lead what with the Massacre named after him, and seven murders from shotgun, pistol and Tommy gun blasts, the latter most likely emerging from Stradivarius violin cases.

So, it looks like St. Val is ahead in the Crime Blotter Race. But the fact is that St. Pat’s day can compete with St. Valentine’s Day. First, a couple minor examples:

On March 17, 1921, mafia hood Albert Anastasia was convicted of murdering GeorgePaul_Muni-scarface_1932 d1 Turino, a longshoreman. They’d quarreled. And I guess you don’t quarrel with one of the founding members of Murder, Inc. Due to a legal technicality, Anastasia was given a retrial in 1922, and because four of the original prosecution witnesses had somehow magically disappeared, Anastasia’s sentence was overturned.  The question is, were they given anesthesia by Anastasia before their disappearing acts? Like I said, I guess it doesn’t pay to quarrel with one of the founders of Murder, Inc.

March 17, 1996, the play Getting Away with Murder, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth opened. March 31, 1996: the Broadway production of the play closes after seventeen performances one day for each day of March leading up to St. Pat’s day. Maybe not a record, but not bad. Even Sondheim couldn’t get away with this one.

And there’s a couple more pretty gruesome events that occurred on March 17th in history that my wife asked me to excise in the name of good taste, but if you look up Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Night Stalker, Rachel Manger Hudson and Uganda on this date you’ll get an idea.

*     *     *

The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre


Now here’s the KickerSt. Pat does have a massacre named in his honor. Bet you didn’t know that, did’ja?

St. Patrick: “I’ll see your St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and raise you one St. Pat’s Day Massacre.”

St. Valentine: “Ha.”

But let’s see.

March 16, 1926: Chicago gangster Jean Arnaud is having a St. Patrick’s Day party at his sister-in-law’s apartment. (Even though it’s the day before, it counts for St. Pat’s Day since it is in honor of that holiday and is, indeed, known as the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.) Rival hood Alphonse “Scarface” Lambert wants to off Arnaud and his peeps. The party starts around 4:30pm and Scarface has several teams of gunmen hit the party by 5pm. Besides the in-house teams, sniper teams are on the buildings across the street. Scarface really wants this dude dead and gone. The whole attack takes less than ten minutes. There are no survivors, and the death count is never officially known, as some of the people who attended the party are never found.

A cop on the scene describes it as a "human slaughterhouse." And you thought your last party bombed.

All of the shooters, Scarface, and everyone involved in the crime escaped. No prosecutions follow.
And even with all that blood and gore, Scarface didn’t get what he wanted as one of Arnaud’s lieutenant’s took up the reigns of Arnaud’s crime family and then finked Scarface out to the cops. Equilibrium was restored and all was right with the world of crime again.

But for some reason St. Patrick’s Day gets the short shrift on this Massacre, which occurred before the more famous St. Val’s. So you see, it’s sort of like Betamax vs. VHS, and maybe the “best” massacre is forgotten. But, as we now know, St. Val ain’t got nothin’ on St. Pat in the Crime Blotter Department.

***Disclaimer: No already-dead people were hurt in the making of this article. Nor is itsAlice's Restaurant intention to cast aspersions on them or make light of their fate, or on the fate of the guilty, or innocent. Nor to cast aspersions on Thompson submachine guns, Betamax players, St. Patrick or his day, St. Val or his day, Irish people, Irish men, Irish women, Irish girls, Irish boys, Ireland, Jill Ireland, Kathy Ireland, John Ireland, Irish holidays, James Joyce, Ulysses, William Butler Yeats, J.M. Synge, Bono, Enya, Celtic Women (in general and the singing group), Danny Boy, my friend Denise, leprechauns, the blarney stone, blarney, the color green in all its variations, the Emerald Isle, Alphonse “Scarface” Lambert, Jean Arnaud, Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, Murder, Inc., the years 1921, 1926, 1929, 1996 (or any other years), chocolate potatoes, Alex Trebek, Jeopardy, Double Jeopardy, the Daily Double, Ernst Lubitsch, Sig Ruman, Col. Ehrhardt, Bismark, Napoleon, herrings, cheese, the massacree at Alice’s Restaurant, massacres in specific and massacres in general, and the specific massacres mentioned in this piece, but not limited only to those mentioned by name, Jack Webb or R.A. Cinader. No names have been changed to protect the guilty or innocent. Jack Webb had nothing to do with the writing of this article.

And yes, murder is bad, I get that. This article is satireGallows Humoras such it closes Saturday night.  But, we also know, Saturday’s alright for fighting.

Just one more thing, is it too late to buy stock in Murder, Inc.?

Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone. Please pass the green beer.


St_Patrick's_Day

*     *     *

And from the Department of BSP: I’m happy and honored to announce that my story, “Howling at the Moon,” came in at #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Award Poll. And that fellow Sleuthsayer David Dean has threeThree!stories in the top ten. Way to go, David.

Ellery Queen 2014 Readers Award Poll -- 3-13-15 -- D1

06 November 2013

The Story I Said I'd Never Write


by Robert Lopresti

I am delighted to report that the January/February 2014 of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is out this week and features my 24th appearance in that fine periodical.  Even better, it marks my third chance to grace the cover (and what a perfect illustration it is!).  "Devil Chased The Wolf Away" is a short story but the history of how it came to exist is a long story, so you might want to fortify yourself with a cup of coffee or something.  I'll wait.

Ready?  Okay, here goes.

About fifteen years ago I attended a concert by a man who had been considered a master musician.  The problem was he was long past his prime, and it showed.  He was confused and his playing was clumsy.

That would have been bad enough, but worse was the fact that his accompanyist, the man who had been driving him from show to show, was clearly fed up, and was rude and disrespectful.  This made the show quite unpleasant.

And as I watched it, being the person I am, I found myself thinking: is there a story here?  A crime story?

By the time the show was over I had invented Cleve Penny, an over-the-hill old-time fiddler from Kentucky.  His tale, "Snake In The Sweetgrass," appeared in the December 2003 issue of Hitchcock's.  

I thought it was my best story and some people seemed to agree.  Several urged me to write about Cleve again, but I didn't want to.  I was afraid that what seemed magical the first time might turn out to be just slight of hand the next time around.  Besides, if I kept dragging my old guy around from stage to stage, wasn't I being like that accompanyist?  So I made up my mind not to write a sequel to "Snake."

Then Bruce Molsky came to town.

Now, I must immediately explain that Molsky is not over the hill.  He is king of the mountain, and can play old-time guitar, banjo or fiddle as well as anybody.  This video should prove my point.  (And he can sing while he plays the fiddle, which is just plain cheating.)



But a few years ago Molsky performed here with a brother and sister act, only one of whom was old enough to drive, and watching him interact with those talented youngsters I had a sudden thought: wouldn't it be fun to have Cleve Penny work with some children?

I thought it would.  Not long before this my family had visited Chicago for the first time, which  included a pilgrimage to the Old Town School of Folk Music.  The School was founded in 1957 and has been offering lessons, concerts, and jams ever since. 

So I invented the Cornheim School of Folk Music, and installed Cleve Penny as guest Artist in Residence.  Then I gave the school a problem and invited Cleve to take his unique approach to solving it.  



But I had another problem.  "Devil" is in some ways a direct result of the events in "Snake."  Cleve's actions in the second story are heavily influenced by what he did in the first.  I can't assume that everyone who reads "Devil" will have read "Snake," much less remember it a decade later.  So how do I slip in the backstory?  I actually got into an interesting discussion on this subject with mystery writer Neil Schofield and wrote about it  at Criminal Brief.

I think I licked that problem, but Linda Landrigan, editor of Hitchcock's, offered an even better solution.  As I said last week, you can download a free podcast of "Snake."  I highly recommend you read/listen to it before you dig into "Devil."  You will enjoy them both more that way.

I think I'm done with Cleve Penny now, and he can settle into a well-deserved retirement.  But I have learned to never say never.

06 January 2013

A Hemingway Punchline


by Leigh Lundin

Hemingway's passport photo
Hemingway
Previously, we brought you Ernest Hemingway’s popular story 'The Killers' and a historical perspective that fills in many gaps. Today, thanks to research and the skills of Robert Lopresti, we bring you its precursor that possibly explains why 'The Killers' may have pursued the Swede.

Hemingway’s 'A Matter of Colour,' published in the April 1916 issue of The Tabula during his junior year of high school, may be forgiven its twist, clever in its own way. Indeed, this story demonstrates the skills of the teenager who'd become one of America's most famous writers.

Colorful Clout

Two weeks ago, we learned Joe Gans was historical, a real fighter, the first black World Lightweight Champion. We also discovered Andreson, the Swede, was patterned after Andre Anderson, who'd once knocked Jack Dempsey off his feet, later killed by the Chicago mob for blowing a match.

One commentator suggests the story should be read aloud for its accents, slang, and a near punchline. With that in mind, we present:

A Matter of Colour

by Ernest Hemingway
“What, you never heard the story about Joe Gan’s first fight?” said old Bob Armstrong, as he tugged at one of his gloves.
“Well, son, that kid I was just giving the lesson to reminded me of the Big Swede that gummed the best frame-up we ever almost pulled off. The yarn’s a classic now; but l’ll give it to you just as it happened.
“Along back in 1902, I was managing a sort of a new light-weight by the name of Montana Dan Morgan. Well, this Dan person was one of those rough and ready lads, game and all that, but with no footwork, but with a kick like a mule in his right nn, but with a weak left that wouldn’t dent melted butter. I’d gotten along pretty well with the bird, and we’d collected sundry shekels fighting dock-wallopers and stevedores and preliminary boys out at the old Olympic club.
“Dan was getting to be quite a sizable scrapper, and by using his strong right mitt and stalling along, he managed to achieve quite a reputation. So I matched the lad with Jim O’Rourke, the old trial horse, and the hoy managed to hang one on Jim‘s jaw that was good for the ten-second anesthetic.
“So when Pete McCarthy came around one day and said he had an amateur that wanted to break in, and would I sign Dan up with him for twenty rounds out at Vernon, I fell for it strong. Joe Gans, Pete said, was the amateur‘s name, and I’d never heard of him at that time.
“I thought that it was kind of strange when Pete came around with a contract that had a $500 forfeit clause in it for non-appearance, but we intended to appear all right, so I signed up.
“Well, we didn’t train much for the scrap, and two days before it was to come off, Dan comes up to me and says: ‘Bob, take a look at this hand.’
“He stuck out his right mauler, and there, just above the wrist, was a lump like a pigeon egg.
“‘Holy smokes! Danny, where did you get that?’
“‘The bag busted loose while I was punchin’ it,’ says Danny, ‘and me right banged into the framework.’
“‘We1l, you’ve done it now,’ I yelped. ‘There’s that 500 iron men in the forfeit, and I’ve put down everything I’ve got on you to win by K.O.’ 
“‘It can’t be helped,’ says Dan. ‘That bag wasn’t fastened proper; I'll fight anyway.’
“‘Yes, you will, with that left hand of yours, that couldn’t punch a ripple in a bowl of soup.’
“‘Bob,’ says Danny, ‘I’ve got a scheme. You know the way the ring is out there at the Olympic? Up on the stage with that old cloth drop curtain in back? Well, in the first round, before they find out about this bad flipper of mine, I’ll rush the smoke up against the curtain (you know Joe Gans was a ‘pusson of color’) and you have somebody back there with a baseball bat and swat him on the head from behind the curtain.’
“Say! I could have thrown a fit. It was so blame simple. We just couldn’t lose, you see. It comes off so quick nobody gets wise. Then we collects and beats it!
“So I goes out and pawns my watch to put another twenty down on Dan to win by a knockout. Then we went out to Vernon and I hired a big husky Swede to do thc slapstick act.
“The day of the fight dawned bright and clear, as the sporting writers say, only it was foggy. I installed the husky Swede back of the old drop curtain just behind the ropes.
“You see, I had every cent we had down on Dan, about 600 round ones and the 500 in the forfeit. A couple of ham and egg fighters mauled each other in the prelims, and then the
bell rings for our show.
Joe Gans
the real Joe Gans
“I tied Dan’s gloves on, gives him a chew of gum and my blessing, and he climbs over the ropes into the squared circle. This Joe Gans, he`s champion now, had quite a big following among the Oakland gang, and so we had no very great trouble getting our money covered. Joe’s black, you know, and the Swede behind the scenes had his instructions:
“‘Just as soon as the white man backs the black man up against the ropes, you swing on the black man’s head with the bat from behind the curtain.‘
"Well, the gong clangs and Dan rushes the smoke up against the ropes, according to instructions.
“Nothing doing from behind the curtain! I motioned wildly at the Swede looking out through the peephole.
“Then joe Gans rushes Dan up against the ropes. Whunk! comes a crack and Dan drops like a poled over ox.
“Holy smoke! The Swede had hit the wrong man! All our kale was gone! I climbed into the ring, grabbed Dan and dragged him into the dressing room by the feet. There wasn’t any need for the referee to count ten; he might have counted 300.
“There was the Swede.
“I lit into him: ‘You miserable apology for a low-grade imbecile! You evidence of God’s carelessness! Why in the name of the Prophet did you hit the white man instead of the black man?’
“‘Mister Armstrong,’ he says, ‘you no should talk at me like that— I bane color blind.’”