Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Rebirth of American Circus

2017 marked the end of an era in American Circus when Feld Entertainment opted to close "The Greatest Show On Earth" to focus on their more lucrative markets: Disney on Ice and Monster Jam. (Collective eyeroll and sigh. I know.) It's not that the RBBB circus was ever necessarily valuing art over profit, but with our current digital times, it's justifiable to claim that most skilled live variety entertainment, just might be a dying art. But last night, in a renovated church in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, I witnessed a resurrection at the Gala performances for Circadium, the first state-licensed higher education program for the arts in the United States.

The brain-child of long-time circus arts student/performer/enthusiast Shana Kennedy, Circadium, is a kind of ultimate artistic iteration of what once was a small aerial arts program she and husband/performer, Greg Kennedy, hosted in their Mt. Airy home in early 2000. That first iteration, AirPlay, soon grew larger and became The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, offering children and adult classes in juggling, aerials and other circus skills out of a small Germantown warehouse. This Fall, what first became just a dream in Shana Kennedy's mind as a young circus student at Circomedia, a circus training school in England, has come to full fruition. The Gala last evening was a way to show the public the Kennedys and their brilliant faculty and board mean serious circus business.

Walking up a Christmas-light glittering slate path at the "Circus Campus" at 6452 Greene Street there was already an air of mystery and magic as the purple glow and mix of electronic and acoustic music emanated from the former house of worship windows. Guests were guided through the dreaming "brain" of the building in an ingenious method to maintain traffic flow and show off both the space and some of the performers in a very intimate way. Our "professor" explained the different states of dream sleep in quite accurate scientific terms as he guided us through the dim theatrically lit hallways. Our first stop was a retro chalkboarded classroom where an oddly caped and gyrating Noa Schnitzer did some hilarious interpretive dance to Beth Eisenberg's fully improvisational song "Here, You Take The Keys", a line suggested by an audience member when asked, "Tell me something someone said to you today." 

We were quickly whisked up two flights of stone stairs to a full-cement attic where Mark Wong and Caoyang Wang (one of the inaugural Circadium students) did a kind of break-dancing interpretive movement piece lit by only our cell phones. Aside from being amazed that these men were spinning on their heads on concrete, the eerie quality of the beams and shadows made this a favorite little space.

From there we sat on the ceramic foyer steps watching one of the most impeccable ring juggling acts performed by Circadium students, Delaney Bayles and Zak McAllister, both IJA award winners. Their stone-faced perfection contrasted delightfully with the quirky live music/vocals of performing artist Eppchez.

Descending next down into the gymnasium underground of the building we were greeted by some strong aerial artists, among them instructors, Megan Gendell and L. Feldman who used percussive accompaniment to show incredible power and poise on the static trapeze. We were ushered to the other half of the gym to witness a theatrical static trapeze piece through a shadow scrim, a beautiful way to close out the "guided tour" whereupon we ascended a small but sturdy metal spiral staircase that opened up onto the main floor. Once an altar and church proper, now a tremendous open space, it was a scene of Bohemian splendor: Tightrope walkers, Silk Aerialists, Parisian flare jazz and a delightful spread of hors-d'oeuvres among the most eclectic mix of Philadelphia artists and arts lovers under the vaulted ceilings of this new house of Circus worship. 

Circadium is seeking to give a place for America's new circus artists to learn, to perform and to go out into the world and bring new pieces to an audience hungry for substance. If last night was any indication of their direction, Circadium will continue to ascend the heights to put American Circus back into the entertainment vernacular, only, like the dream world our guide took us through in those shadow halls, American Circus is not going to look anything like we're used to. And that's very exciting.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

May 9, 2017
National Teacher Appreciation Day

Dear Leo Braudy:

I asked my Creative Writing students today to write letters to a teacher they felt influenced them in their short seventeen years on earth. It could be a classroom teacher, a coach, a relative, anyone who made a significant impact on their learning in some way. We then started to discuss how “Teacher Appreciation” takes on a whole new meaning when considering the new French President Emmanuel Macron’s affair and then marriage to one of his teachers from high school. We had some good laughs until one of the students asked me if I ever had a teacher with whom I was genuinely in love. And it took me no time to answer. While I’ve respected all my teachers and coaches immensely, while almost all of them have made an impact on my life in more ways than one, there is only one teacher in all my years of formal and informal schooling for whom my infatuation never waned, never ceased. You are that teacher, Leo Braudy. And today’s the day for you to know that you are appreciated, and yes, loved.

I first walked into your classroom in the Spring of 1985 after finishing my first semester at USC. A wide-eyed and curious Dean’s and Trustee Scholar from New Jersey, I soaked up all that my Thematic Option courses laid before me. In the fall Dr. Nyomarkay introduced me to E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and I still remember a map of Yugoslavia I drew in my notebook. Mostly because years later there was no Yugoslavia anymore. I had another professor that fall but I can only remember her name was Barbara, she wore Birkenstocks and gray pinstripe trousers every day, and she was very disappointed that we didn’t understand the importance of the dynamo in The Education of Henry Adams. She also made us read the Oresteia, which had a huge impact on me as I studied Greek Theatre years later in a Master’s Degree. But it wasn’t until I walked into your class, Leo, that I felt the muses sing and I first swooned over a real live idol.

I had plenty of fictional character fantasies. My sophomore year of high school Huck Finn and I traveled down the Mississippi River together hundreds of times. Then when Roger Rees portrayed Nicholas Nickleby in the nine-hour RSC/PBS Special of Dickens’ novel, well, I had an infatuation to last another two years. Then the summer before heading to USC I saw the play The Keeper by Karolyn Nelke and Lord Byron pushed aside Huck and Nick for my affections. But then, that Spring Semester at USC I had my new Thematic Option Symbols and Structures course and I thought somehow the literary gods had crafted me my very own Lord Byron Nickleby Finn hybrid when you walked into that classroom in Taper.

I will admit, my devotion to you did not always translate itself into fervid or thorough completion of all your assignments. I know that I showed incredible interest in the Wife of Bath one Canterbury Tales class day because The Summoner and The Clerk just didn’t get much of my time the night before. But you always indulged our musings and helped us see how very alive English literature could be, even if it was from the fourteenth century. You were finishing your work on Frenzy of Renown and while you helped us understand how Alexander the Great was a rock star as big as Madonna, you had no idea of the literary dream idol you had become in my eyes.

I wanted to have you in class so much again, but I was not an English major. I was a Religion major, the only one in the Class of 1988, actually. Lots of minors, but only one major. The claim to fame that garnered me the honor of carrying the Humanities Flag at graduation. Thank you, Donald Miller! But I needed to have a Leo Braudy class before I graduated and the only way I could do that was to petition to get into your graduate level Literature in Film class. Watching the zillion papers I needed to get signed and the paragraphs upon paragraphs extolling my eligibility, my roommates asked me why I didn’t just sign up for any old class, it was our last semester, after all. Precisely, was my reply, and I must have Leo Braudy in class again. And those literary gods shone upon me again and I got to revel in your film analysis as you opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing. We had read Frankenstein and I fantasized that I was Mary Shelley telling my story to you, my friend Lord Byron. There were, of course, not the James Whale images at all. I had a fuzzy memory of a made for television film I saw when I was in first grade, something where the “monster” was a handsome man at first, the way he was in Shelley’s novel. It was a film that started with Mary, Percy Bysshe and George Gordon sitting at Lake Geneva. I asked if you had ever heard of such a television movie but you had not. I knew I had not just dreamed it, so I started my first true research quest in a pre-Internet world, an exciting endeavor of research that drove me through several years of graduate school both in the 20th and the 21st centuries. Lucky for me I was at one of the premier universities for cinema studies because after much time in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature looking up TV Guides from 1972 and 1973, I found it! Christopher Isherwood’s teleplay Frankenstein: The True Story. My pride in my accomplishment on the subsequent comparison paper was fueled by your authentic and genuine interest in the teleplay and wonder at how I remembered such an obscure but ultimately relevant moment from first grade late night television.

When I left USC, I returned to the East Coast joyfully. I was never very comfortable in the centerless world of Los Angeles. But I still took my memories of you to every used bookstore I ventured in Philadelphia, my new adopted city as I was at Villanova University studying for a Master’s in Theatre. At one of the largest used book stores on South Street I finally found a copy of Frenzy of Renown that I could call my own. That was 1989. And in 1993, on a particularly gloomy and rainy weekend, I was sitting in my small apartment in Sasebo Shi, Japan watching CNN International because it was the only English Language television I could get. I’m watching Crossfire and they are eager to talk about Michael Jackson who was becoming an increasingly bizarre celebrity and there you were! “Discussing fame on Crossfire today, Professor Leo Braudy from the University of Southern California.” My heart swelled and while you would never know it, that little piece of home and familiar smile sustained me several more months in Japan.

Decades passed and the seeds of interest in literature planted by you in 1985 burgeoned even more as I pursued a second Master’s Degree, this time in English at Rutgers University in Newark. And as fate would have it, in 2007, I happened on campus to get a library book for one of my classes and I saw flyers announcing a keynote speaker: Leo Braudy speaking on “Secular Anointings: Fame, Celebrity, and Charisma in the First Century of Mass Culture.” The irony was you have been the only “celebrity” whose charisma has ever made me do silly fan-girl things like cart my eight-year-old and two-year-old daughters to a university lecture so I could finally get my copy of Frenzy of Renown autographed.

My secret love for you, Dear Leo Braudy, is no longer secret on this Teacher Appreciation Day. I will shout it from the blog-o-sphere and I promised my students that I would e-mail it to you as well. I almost even called you today when I easily found that you are still a professor at the ol’ alma mater, USC. (Thank you, Internet.)

It’s time you knew that for over three decades you have affected the course of a life. Your genuine love for learning in a wide variety of genres and your authentic interest in the minds and thoughts of your students are qualities I know I’ve tried to emulate. I never really thought I’d be an English teacher back then in 1985. I could barely get through Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 without a headache. But here I am, making students read Shakespeare and Chaucer, Dickens and Austen. And talking to a Creative Writing class about teachers I would have considered having a Macron-like affair with shouting as I graduated “I will come back someday and marry you.” While that boat has likely already sailed, Leo Braudy, please know that you have made an impact on my life and will forever remain my deepest and longest crush.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

It's been two years today since my mother yielded her soul to heaven. Last year I remember the one year anniversary feeling raw and emotional. Today, for better or worse, was just Wednesday, April 5. Another day of grading papers, and trying to teach young people how to write. And yet, thanks to Facebook, I was reminded what I was doing a year ago today, which was writing a post about a year prior to that on April 5, 2015 when my beautiful momma left her body. I don't know if I really have any new thoughts on the subject of losing a mother, except it still hurts. That, I know.

I recently moved into our first home. We've owned three other homes, actually, but (long story) I never lived in any of them. This house, we live in. Every day. And my mother won't ever get to visit. And that makes me sad. I want to sit at the kitchen table and shoot the shit with her. I really do. The home we lived in prior to this one is a place my mother never visited either. We moved there January 2015 and she was too sick at that time to really visit anywhere, then she passed away. I don't know if it's better, to be in space where you cannot picture someone sitting on the couch, or coming in the door. Or if it would be better to know that your loved one's presence once shared the space. It's a complicated notion.

I do have a plant that was my mother's. My daughter had asked for it shortly after "Rabbit Grandma's" death but then, as teenagers are wont to do, she nearly killed it by never watering it or letting it have light. It's a Christmas cactus and I saved it in November. And it bloomed all through January this year. In fact, it was still blooming a little when we moved in February. It has a new window sill to thrive on now and, if it's possible, there seem to be buds forming again. I know when that cactus blooms, it's my Mom. I mean, on a very organic level, there is a piece of my mom somewhere in that potted plant. Because she cared for it and nurtured it, so pieces of her DNA are part of that plant. I know I shouldn't put so much credence into a cactus. Because it might die, but then again, all of us organisms do that, unfortunately. Or fortunately, I don't know. Last weekend on NPR I listened to a reporter talking about the science of immortality and how billionaires may soon be able to pay top dollar to live forever. And you know what, that doesn't sound desirable at all. To live in this body forever. Because it's limiting. Because I'm pretty sure that we'd be missing out on something very, very cool if we refused to leave these earthly bodies. Because the transformative power of the soul allows us to become the ether of the unknown:  a silent wind in the hair of a loved one, the twinkling moonlight on the bay when someone needs joy, the transformative power of death releases us into the cosmos and we can indeed be a Christmas cactus. or moon dust, or both.

So, yes, I'm sad again on April 5, but it is the wistful sad that I do not have my mother's hand to hold or her voice to tell me she thinks my kitchen is too small, but she likes the windows. But I have the cactus and by that token, I have her with me.