Wednesday, 24 December 2008

my first panto!

Hi y'all! Well, I'm back from seeing my first Christmas pantomime EVER. JJDP took me to The Rosemary Branch on Monday night to see "Aladdin." The Christmas Pantomime version, of course. What does this mean? Well, I didn't really know what I was in for.

We met up at The Rosemary Branch pub/theatre in Hoxton. In order to get there - I was coming from my new new room in Bethnal Green -it seemed I had to go back to Hackney Central (where I'd left earlier in the day to move to the new new room) and then jump on the 38. And then walk. And walk. And walk. Sigh...having no internet connection in the new place yet, I relied on Kami looking at the website for the pub. I think I could have used tfl (that's the Transport for London website -- quite good, though sometimes does not tell you exactly what you want to know...).

At any rate, arrived there a bit after 6. JJDP was there with his new faux glasses and looking very incognito. I'm dead broke, so he ordered me some chips and an Earl Grey tea. They brought the tea with steamed milk! And the chips were more like yummy potato wedges dusted with parsley and lots of salt and some flavours we couldn't figure out. We asked for ketchup and mayo and they brought homemade mayo! We ate them all before going in to see the show. He also gave me an unexpected Xmas present! Yay presents! I still enjoy getting them, even though I can't give any this year. : ( And he gave me some bananas and avocados, too!

The show. Well...a very very very silly version of Aladdin, made sillier by many conventions which must be closely associated with the Xmas Panto. Ingredients seem to include:

- At least one character in drag
- Audience participation in various forms including booing at the villain, welcoming certain characters on stage with particular lines of dialogue, and responding to certain prompts in the negative leading to a banter
- Really silly character names
- Throwing things at the audience
- The audience throwing things back
- Being fully aware of the audience and talking to them in character, but outside the story
- Off-colour jokes a bit too veiled for the kiddies to see through
- The appropriation of show tunes, pop tunes and standards to be sung and danced with modified lyrics
- The introduction of running gags which do or don't pay off
- Puns. Bad ones. Loads.

There are probably more, too. The panto was horribly racist, I'm afraid to say, but also thoroughly enjoyable. I think it got away with it because it's racism was so incredibly dated, it was almost making fun of itself. Basically, an evil magician, Ava----something, needs to find Aladdin to gain the riches in the cave. Aladdin is apparently in China with his mother who runs a Chinese laundry, and his brother Wishy Washy. They also run a Chinese take-away. The humour is all sophomoric, the characters all completely arch, but somehow, it is a lot of fun. Everyone needs their mind taken off their troubles just now and after a while, you kind of accept what it is and go with it. It's just too silly not to like.

I think my favorite scene was the version of "Hernando's Hideaway" featuring actors dressed as big rocks with holes for sock puppet snakes who sang while Aladdin was trapped in the cave. Pretty f**king inventive. And funny.

The singers were all quite good, as well, which definitely helped. It's not that it's bad artists creating bad theatre. It is in fact, very good artists creating bad theatre. And maybe here is where the appeal is. It's much much easier to connect with the human level of entertainment that is presented here. It comes out of a much older tradition that is so much the opposite of television, or streaming video -- it is participatory, engaging, and evolving. It's satisfying in a way that none of our newer forms are. It's not cathartic in any traditional sense, but it's good fun shared by all. There is a sense of community and family present in the panto that is not lost because one set of people are on the stage and another set are sitting in chairs watching. It's as though, on another day, we could all just switch. It reminded me very much of why we all got into this business in the first place -- to have fun. It reminded me of Levels musicals, of breaking out into song in the JP room, and all the duets Naomi and I used to do (in fact, most of them were in the panto).

At the interval, JJDP and I talked books sitting by the heat on a little divan. After the show, he ordered Sticky Toffee Pudding -- my first. It was pretty damn good. I thought it would be super-sweet or just icky, but it was delicious and warm and pretty sexy for British food. I would do that one again! I had a coffee and we talked with the theatre manager and one of the actors. I got directions for a gentleman at the bar, who suggested going via Old Street. JJDP and I walked to the bus and got out at Old Street. He went to the tube and I got on another bus and was back home about ten minutes later -- much better route.

It was a really welcome night out. Really good to forget all the stresses of the day, of the past months and just be sort of, well, entertained.

There's something for everyone in the panto -- a mushy love storyline, bawdy humour, singing, dancing, broad comedy, screwball comedy, a bit of magic, and our favorite good triumphing over evil. What it isn't, is sentimental. You don't start tearing up at any point. I think maybe this is where it's Britishness comes in handy. An American version would somehow have the audience either all choked up or ready to upchuck. Somehow, though, the fact that they are doing this all with a wink is never forgotten, even in the sappier moments. In the end, Aladdin gets the princess and the riches. Everyone is made better for the experience, even our bad guy, and everyone goes home happy and feeling like the world still works as it should.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Corporate Touchstones

The only thing I was armed with upon beginning this journey was two pieces of advice:

Don’t panic.
Always have a towel.

These two pearls of wisdom, along with the idea that I am, at this moment in time, the answer to the universe, come from Douglas Adam’s brilliant Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Maybe humourous, satirical sci-fi isn’t your thing. Even so, therein lies some good advice.

Yes, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, I embarked on this journey with no safety net. No savings, no book deal, no lump sum of cash, no credit lines. Just me and what I had in my pockets, my two suitcases, my hard drive, and my brain. My friend K. and I were discussing this concept last night. I love Eat, Pray, Love, but it is a very cushy way to “transform” your life. I’m not recommending my way – if you have all the comfort of cash and credit, by all means take advantage of them. But there is letting go, and then there is letting go.

So far, what I have needed is the above advice and an unbelievably strong network of people who step forward in various ways at exactly the right moment. Some of them are long-time friends, some are strangers. Like the people at Cross Kings who made sure I ate, even if I didn’t actually have any money. Or the people who opened their homes to me when I needed places to stay. Four months into this journey, I am not dead. That is pretty much a miracle. I have met people who have enriched me in ways I cannot describe. I have walked streets that have sent their energy and stories up through the soles of my shoes so I could carry them to new places.

In this city, I am a tourist most of the time when it comes to consumerism. Today I went to the Columbia Road Flower Market armed with nothing to spend. Down to my last 2 pounds, I was not about to spend them in frivolity. But somehow, then, the experience of the market and the people became the point. The smells of Christmas in pine needles and citrus and cinnamon; the calls of hawkers trying to get rid of their wares before closing – so many cries of 5 pound, 5 pound, that in one shop, a little girl was saying out loud ot herself “five pound, five pound…”

The shops on the road are wonderful, too. Yes, I wanted battered shrimp in a little cup from a windown onto the street for 2.50 and yes I wanted tea and cupcakes and mince pies. But you can’t always get what you want.

I went into Ryantown. The first time I came upon the work of Robert Ryan was on the cover of John Connelly’s wonderful The Book of Lost Things. He has a store on Columbia Road filled with his simple, mystical designs. Even just being in there, without the possibility of buying things, was precious.

So what is the possibility of buying things? What is this feeling? What does it do to us? Is it the whole hunter-gatherer thing? Is it status? Is it tactile? Would I have felt different on my journey back had I accumulated bags and bags of things?

Sure, I had no money – but it is Christmas. So I imagination shopped. I bought everyone presents as I saw them. For George and Alisha, there was a mirror dish, like the mirror box I got Alisha for her birthday last year that she liked better than the gift that came in it. There were flower shaped tea lights for entertaining and a book for writing for George. For May there were fantastic mugs. For the Isabella Road crew, there were funny spatulas. They have no spatulas. For Patricia – reindeer earrings. Everyone’s gift logged and registered, if not purchased and given. And do they need more things? Or are they happy as they are?

Martine is having the dilemna of possessions, and she has barely had much time to accumulate them. They are already constricting her movements, plans and freedoms. What is enough? What is too much?

There was a homeless man on the road. Sitting. Waiting for grace. That is not enough. But where is the line between that kind of not enough and adequate…good…excess. We seem unable to grapple with it.

When I got to the UK, I was so comforted by the existence of Woolworth’s. I don’t think there are any more in the U.S. The site of much time spent in childhood, Woolworth’s was the home of Nana’s thread and needles, and replacement zippers and shoelaces, of tuna sandwiches with potato chips at the low counter on the red swirling stools and getting lost in the aisles. I went in one, and found it to be mostly candy (ah, perhaps that’s why I loved it so much as a kid), and a lot of stuff no one really needs. But way in the back, a pretty good and remarkably cheap few rows of housewares. I was thinking if I had a kitchen, I could outfit it pretty fast and cheaply and nicely with not much cash.

Since then, Woolworth’s has declared bankruptcy. It seems that they will close all the stores. The one at Hackney Central has been having a huge sale. Or at least they profess to be having a huge sale. I went in to find a notebook. I cannot seem to keep myself in paper and pens. Notebooks are pretty overpriced. I found a book that I liked that seemed like it would be about 2 pounds last week. I then waited on line for about 20 minutes to pay for it. I stood amongst people trying to gather holiday decorations and gifts, people buying games and DVD’s and kids trying to get as much candy up the aisle and to the checkout before their moms could veto it as possible.

People talked while waiting. Woolworth’s is just a store. An old store, sure, but just a retail chain. But it’s as much a part of lives as Seinfeld or X-Factor, or Sunday dinners. How, when, why do we attach so much sentiment to retail establishments?

Walking to the bus stop the other day, a woman pushing a stroller stopped me. She said something I couldn’t understand. I asked her to repeat it. She uttered it again. And then finally, through her accent and her uncertainty in English, I heard it, “P-r-i-m-a-rk.”

If you don’t know, Primark is a chain of stores here not unlike a strange hybrid of Target and Forever 21. But cheaper. Much, much cheaper. Guilt-riddenly cheap.

As she uttered “Primark” plaintively I was moved to gesture that it was just through the Churchyard, that she was almost there, that she couldn’t possibly miss it. We did not really share English, or anything else, but we shared the language of consumerism. We shared Primark.

We continued walking in the same direction, when I realized the time and checked my phone. After 6pm.

“Ohhhhh,” I exclaimed. She turned. “I think Primark closes at 5!” I was horrified for her.

She shook her head. “Okay….meet…friend.”

Ah – she was not on a retail quest today, just meeting a friend at our new kind of cultural touchstone.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

julie taymor

The other night I was out with a bunch of California people at a "free house" in London. (I'm still trying to find the difference between a pub and a free house.) A few of the guys were arguing vociferously about someone and one of them said, "...she's the only female auteur!" I turned around and said, "I hope you're talking about Julie Taymor." And they said they were.

I wrote the following after Across the Universe came out. It was supposed to go in a magazine, but it never did, and I don't think I've ever posted it. I'm pretty excited about the new version of The Tempest she is shooting with Helen Mirren as Prospera, so I thought I'd post it here.


Julie Taymor is fearless.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a grand pastiche of our cultural history, absorbing and refashioning everything from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation video to the Joffrey’s The Green Table to Japan’s post-war butoh dance art form: a remixed re-mastered movie musical collecting pieces of our shared nostalgia and shards of old headlines and spitting them back out at us as social, political, and romantic commentary. This is the low-brow in service of the high-brow and the high-brow co-opted to serve the low. Juicy, ambitious, dense, gut-wrenching, mind-bending, equal parts success and failure, but one hell of a ride.

You’ve seen things like this before, sure. You’ve seen every movie about the Sixties and you’ve seen Monty Python cartoons and you’ve seen the boy meets gets girl musicals and maybe you’ve even seen THE LION KING on tour. Except you haven’t seen anything like this before. Forget that the songs are the most memorable in the post-war musical cannon. Forget that it’s a musical. Taymor weaves a journey into our collective psyche using cultural touchstones as shorthand and she does it with dazzling beauty, wit, and grace. Brava.

The set up itself is cloying, but so were those early Beatles tunes. A sweet girl, a sweet boy who gets shipped off to war (and inexplicably dies before being shipped out); another sweet boy meets a tortured boy who happens to be brother to the sweet girl. Well, boring. I haven’t seen any of those instant musicals with the Songs Of…ABBA, Billy Joel, but I imagine this is a little bit like those, though a whole lot more sophisticated. (Until) The soda shop love story veers so far adrift from its happy marriage ending it actually delves into the truth of the dissolution of a way of life.

The boy, Jude, begins the journey by telling – no, singing – us a story of a girl he loves. We meet characters named for Beatles songs (cringe) like Max and Lucy and Prudence, all song cues waiting to happen(.), though they don’t always, which makes you wonder how much they shot and did not put in the movie. Unlike THE WIZARD OF OZ, the characters we meet don’t automatically get their introductory songs. Eventually our congenial and pleasant, yet not distractingly good-looking, group of young people make their ways from spots as supposedly divergent as Dayton, Ohio and Liverpool, England to convene in Boho Paradise – Greenwich Village circa 1967 or 68 or just before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the actors is even named for him, pulling us back into the present, which is clearly Taymor’s intention at every step. Substitute Iraq for Viet Nam in every instance. The characters add up to a cast of Zeligs – each one at the right, or wrong, place at the right time. Every watershed event seems to run through their way too big Greenwich Village apartment.

What is fascinating is the rapid transition from the leftover Fifties vibe of the early Sixties to the mind-blown, shell-shocked universe the Beatles, and the planet, traversed in such a short time. We tour all the high points; characters are not disguised – only the names have been changed. We get visits from Janis Joplin (Sadie), Jimi Hendrix (JoJo), Ken Kesey (Dr. Robert), Timothy Leary (Dr. Geary, an off-screen presence like the man behind the curtain in, again, THE WIZARD OF OZ) and a bus we know as Furthur but which sports “Beyond” on its front. Fabulous cameos by Eddie Izzard, Bono and others make the cultural reference roller-coaster ride all the more harrowing – Taymor will not let you escape her demanding notions that history does shape our present and our future and that celebrity has become our perhaps pathetic attempt to sustain ritual.

If you know your Sixties history, and your post-war history, you are in good stead here. “Bill” (played with some relish by James Urbaniak) tries to sign Sadie to a record deal, taking her to a party that screams Factory. Sadie’s difficult romance with JoJo recalls the ill-fated Aretha-Otis love story. This is a musical, after all, so nobody ends up od’ing, dead, unloved, or alone. The war, though, rages on.

Max, Lucy’s brother, has the most unbelievable and the most compelling storyline. A Princeton prankster, he drops out to drop into the raging lifestyle of the Village, only to be called up for the draft. He drives a taxi to make money, and every so often tries to figure out how he’s going to get out of going to war. When the day finally comes, he is too morally sound, even amidst all the corrupting forces, to just split for Canada, and ends up getting a 1A classification. His journey from rich Suburban boy to post-Viet Nam soul death is hammering. His only possible act of redemption is to try to reunite Jude and Lucy – driving his cab back in NY he seems to know already there is no future for him. He will drive a taxi and slug back whiskeys until his body gives out, the death in his eyes never leaving.

The movie oozes nostalgia, bringing up equal parts of sweetness and pain. In places it is as hard to watch as an episode of I LOVE LUCY where Lucy’s done something terribly wrong that is unfixable before Ricky gets home. You watch knowing that she is going to have some “‘splaining” to do as your gut twirls and twists the comedy out of the moment. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is like that. You watch these fresh-faced idealistic characters go through their lives unaware of what is so painfully obvious: the societal fabric has melted while they were so lustily coming of age. Each step they take is fateful, only they don’t know it, and you do. It is a lesson in hindsight and hubris that might act as a cautionary tale, were it not already too late. Each successive generation has tread the same path as this, trying mightily to balance saving themselves and the world, with surviving in a civilization where the mechanisms for war and destruction are so firmly in place. You could place this movie in a time capsule and give future civilizations the answer to how we lost our way.

Daniel Ezralow’s choreography is refreshing. There are no new steps, and this is not a dance movie, but what is achieved here is an active participation of choreography in the daily lives of the characters. Basketball drills turn into dance routines. When the characters go to a bowling alley, they are quickly fulfilling every 6-year old’s dream of sliding up and down the alleys with impunity. Corporate cronies perform pas de deux with briefcases. Activity dictates choreography, which is as it should be. The same way behaviour should dictate performance. In that, Taymor mostly manages to stay low-key, allowing her actors to sing many of the songs simply as if they were dialogue, and then occasionally hitting a home run out of the park with set pieces that are musical numbers unlike any we have seen on film.

The most successful of these is the rendition of “I WANT YOU”. Easily a song about sexual desire, Taymor flips the script and makes it about…conscription. As Max heads into an Army headquarters to get his pre-enlistment physical, posters of Uncle Sam on the walls start singing to him “I want you…I want you so bad…” Every soldier he meets has an exaggerated mask and the whole number is an intense induction into loss of identity. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything on film like it before. Use of CGI, animation, masks, dance, song, irony, satire, pathos, and actors in their skivvies going from assured young men to victims of a system add up to a powerful center point in this film. And as we’ve been told, the center cannot hold.

The bottom fell out of the 60’s. The shattering events of multiple assassinations and a war without cause and without end occasioned ridiculous excesses in the culture at home. From the perspective of 2007 it is both easy to call it ridiculous excess and to see the predicating factors that led straight there. From here it is easy for Taymor to both exalt and expose her faux Ken Kesey character in ten minutes of screen time, whereas for those who really were on the bus (mostly in altered states), months or years or decades of their lives were spent following someone they believed in whole-heartedly and who only slowly revealed himself as just another man on his own trip.

The truth remains, we wouldn’t be where we are today without those assholes. Without a Ken Kesey and a Timothy Leary to counter the decisions of men holding power, things could have been much worse and certainly very different. Without those doing their own thing in reaction to governmental actions, we might never have reached the kind of consciousness we have today. Fascism was eerily close at hand in hindsight, as it is now, yet it still has not won the better part of us. For every Robert McNamara, we had a Janis Joplin, willing to live life to the very edge to make sure that we were still feeling. For every conscripted kid who didn’t want to go, we had rebels willing to take to the streets and some willing to never go home. With the strong center of leadership decimated: Kennedy, Kennedy, King, X, we were left with only the poles. The pendulum was deadly, but it broke through boundaries in record speed and changed the pace at which we live and experience our world.

It’s easy to condemn behaviour at that time: revolutionaries using bombs to fight for non-violence; people using drugs to expand their consciousness while building their own personality cults; governments making enemies in order to preserve the status quo. In light of all the excess, our main character, Jude, comes out smelling like a rose from Paul McCartney’s London garden. Looking like a cross between Jake Gyllenhaal and the young Sir Paul, Jude goes from shipyward worker to artist in no steps. He draws away the days and nights and loves a blonde girl whose parents embody the American dream, but who has lost the future they fashioned for her at the hands of war. She eventually falls for a revolutionary so caught up with himself he is barely civil to those around him. Just another revolutionary rock star, Jude sees right through him, but Lucy cannot. When she confronts his lack of politicism, his response echoes many by Paul McCartney when challenged for writing love songs: “Well I'm sorry I'm not the man with the mega-phone, but this is what I do.”

This movie seems to know that the only things that will for sure kill you are not doing and not loving. Everything else is certainly subject to fate and chance. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is planetary, like Peter Max drawings. It says from its perspective on Orion that some people easily know their purpose in life, and some don’t. Some will find it after searching and some will never know it. And that we need all of them to get to where we are. And that love is all you need if you do it right, but it isn’t ever going to be the only thing, since we do so much wrong. It says we couldn’t function fully as humans without those who question, those who go out on limbs, those who simply comfort and those who just exist. This is the pastiche humanity is. Dig in.


I was walking with A., the niece of a friend in Los Angeles. We were looking for a place to have coffee. She's from California and mentioned that her mom ships her her toothpaste. I asked why, and she answered, "Well, I use Tom's and you just can't find it here."

I looked at her with alarm. "Do you know why you can't find it here?"


And then I had to tell her. I felt horrible having to tell her, wanted to leave her in ignorance, but sharing my own recent disappointment was so heartening.

I ran out of toothpaste pretty soon after arriving in London. I went to the local Whole Foods, aka Fresh and Wild, and saw that they carried Tom's, but not my flavour. I scouted around some more, and couldn't find Tom's ANYWHERE. I bought some German brand somewhere to tide me over. It seemed natural. Was sort of minty (they are much more adventurous with flavours here, perhaps too adventurous), and reasonably okay.

Then I happened upon the Homeopathy Shop in Covent Garden after a meeting. I asked them why the didn't carry Tom's. The woman swallowed and said, "well, it seems they are owned by Colgate." "What???" I said. "And, they use sodium lauryl sulfate." "What's that?" "It's a toxic chemical found in many products that is a cheap foaming agent." "Now what am I going to do?"

I researched and found that both sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate are though to be incredibly toxic. They are found in shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, shower gels, etc. As I was looking for substitute products for things I was running out of, I noticed that even the "natural" products at most chains contained one of these chemicals. It was really upsetting.

So far, I've tried 3 different toothpastes. The first one was actually the best. The one I have now tastes okay, but I have to brush my teeth twice in a row for them to feel almost clean.

What to do? Go back to Tom's just to feel clean and possibly poison myself? Go for some corporate toothpaste? Is Tom's really owned by Colgate?

A. was tremendously disappointed. She has been using Tom's for 15 years. I think I've been using it for 20. All the time thinking we were using something natural and healthy and effective.

How closely do we need to look at every single thing we bring into our lives? Is it true that what you don't know can't hurt you?

p.s. Tom's is owned by Colgate. And they do use SLS, however they have several SLS-free tothpastes now available.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

spirit teaching

Since I've been on this trip, I've noticed some unusual occurrences. On certain days I've noticed almost total strangers opening up to me within minutes of meeting. I've also noticed wisdom coming to me from very unexpected sources.

Each person who has opened up to me has wanted or needed something very simple to shift their energy. In turn, when I've found myself needing a shift, something has always seemed to transpire at the right moment.

Today, again, I had an experience. My housemate J. put me onto the Christmas Fair at Sutton House, which is directly across the street. It is a National Trust preserved Tudor House.

They had a fantastic crafts fair of lovely things. I had about 2 pounds in my pocket, and I really needed those, but I was just happy to view the different artists and their arts. There is something much more magical and with a lighter touch to the arts here. I can't explain it, but when we use symbols -- mermaids and stars and moons and things -- it so often becomes forced or kitchy. The things I saw today with those symbols were really delightful and mystical.

One woman had fabulous miniatures and watercolours and wonderful woolen art. She talked to me and upon finding out I was from the U.S., she mentioned that she had lived in Virginia for a long time. She left when her husband died, and her children were only 1 and 3, and came back to London . She seemed very sad. She said she used to go back often -- her sheep are there, which is where she gets her wool -- and felt blocked from going back lately. She is thinking maybe she will go back in 2010. As she spoke to me, she became fer klempt, for lack of a better term. When a new customer came to her table she seemed delighted to change the subject and her aura back to the professional selling her wares.

Something really struck me about her. I had taken her card and sent her an email. I felt that maybe I had something to tell her. I thought hard and sent her a message of support and clarity.

Then I started thinking about how this trip has gone. And the idea of Spirit-teaching came to me. The idea that we are daily teachers and taught if we only pay attention and are mindful. I am deciding to cultivate this and to see if I can document one event daily where I am sought as teacher and one where I am taught. Today, this event was both. I felt her connecting to me for some strong reason as if I were going to channel something to her. And then I felt brought to awareness about this process by the incident.