Short Attention Span Theater? – Laura Shea

April may not be the cruelest month, but on the Broadway stage, it is definitely the busiest. Almost nightly there is another opening, another show. To be considered for a Tony Award, and everyone on Broadway wants to be considered for a Tony Award, shows must open by the Tony deadline, which this year is April 27. The Tony Award may exist to reward artistic excellence, but it is also a marketing tool, a stamped seal of approval for potential ticket buyers debating which show to see this season.

What several shows have in common, whether musical or straight play, is the distinct lack of an intermission. Ninety minutes, you’re in, you’re out. In 1879, when Henrik Ibsen wrote a controversial play called A Doll’s House, after three full acts, and following the most famous door slam in literature, Nora Helmer leaves her husband and children to become her own person rather than exist as the dancing doll she is expected to be, merely an ornamental feature of the household. Twenty years after the play was written, Ibsen was still disclaiming that he consciously worked for women’s rights, saying, “I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights.” If the play is interpreted as an argument for the basic human rights of those who lack them in the nineteenth century, that would certainly include women.

In A Doll’s House, Part 2, a new play by Lucas Hnath, Nora (played by Laurie Metcalf) returns after 15 years to see the family she left behind. It’s not so much an emotional journey as a practical one, and each of the four characters (Nora, her husband Torvald, Anne Marie, the nanny, and Emmy, Nora’s grown daughter) have their say. Although a recent online ad described the play as “A Mother’s Day Gift Every Family Can Enjoy” (I guess it would depend on the family), the discussion ends after ninety minutes whether or not issues have been resolved. Does that leave room for a Doll’s House, Part 3?

A very different show that goes intermissionless is Amelie, a musical based on the quirky 2001 French romantic comedy, with Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Eliza Hamilton in the musical Hamilton, in the title role. Amelie is a shy and isolated waitress in Montmartre, who begins to engage with the world when she is inspired by the philanthropic work of Princess Diana, and decide to improve the lives of those around her.

Musicals usually have a running time of two and a half to two and three quarters hours (after three hours, there’s overtime to pay). Imagine my surprise when the running time of Amelie was listed as ninety minutes. How do they get everything in, including the music? Answer: They run. The role of Amelie is beautifully sung by Ms. Soo, who moves non stop through most of those ninety minutes, with multiple trips up and down a staircase that curves above the stage. She is followed in hot pursuit by the rest of the cast who inject an energy into those ninety minutes that never flags.

So whom can we thank or blame for this recent mini-trend? Producers love ninety-minute productions. That usually means a single set instead of expensive scenery that must find its way to the stage, probably mechanically but possible under human power, and has a tendency to get stuck, especially during previews. But plays are written and musicals assembled long before a producer is attached. We can always blame technology for shortening our attention spans and our willingness to sit still for over two hours. In reality, the current audience member who can afford a ticket to a Broadway show is closer to Social Security than Snapchat. While baby boomers have mastered their smartphones, they grew up without them, and are not conditioned to check them as frequently as millennials do. And is the intermissionless evening in the theater really such a bad thing? I must admit, I was a little relieved to find out the Amelie would be a fleet ninety minutes than a lumbering two-plus hours. In no way did I feel cheated by this production or by the equally speedy A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Another show on my theatergoing schedule is the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate in the roles of Regina, the rapacious Southern belle who will do anything to gain the money that is her only route to power, and Birdie, her sweet, sad, defeated sister in law. Written in 1939, Hellman’s play relies on melodrama to make its points, but it does offer different portraits of female characters and the choices available to them. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the two-hour play manages to include two intermissions. Act I and Act II are thirty-five minutes, each act followed by an intermission. A seventy-minute first act would not have strained anyone’s attention span, but Hellman included the intermissions to serve the play, and the play is performed as written. But the multiple intermissions reminded me of a time when people went to the theater for the intermissions as much as the play, to see and be seen. Now there are other platforms on which to make our presence felt.

Linking Past and Present – Christina Carlson

Tuesday I attended my first class of a study tour of medieval Spain, which focuses on the Camino de Santiago. It has become clear to me that this will indeed be a journey, not just through space but through time, a going back to go ahead. The course is being run by Prof Richard Gyug at Fordham University, where I earned my PhD. He has been doing this for a decade or more and I have wanted to do it with him for some time, but the scheduling was never right. However, when I found out that he is retiring this year, I recognized that it was my last opportunity to do it with him. I e-mailed him to get his thoughts on the possibility of my accompanying him, and he graciously invited me to join the group; I felt like the Chaucerian narrator at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales “I was of hir felawshipe anon.” (GP 32)

Of course, this is not a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England but one to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, and we are not beginning at a London tavern but in a classroom, FMH 322 to be exact. There is no Knight, no Miller, no creepy Pardoner (thankfully); rather a group of roughly a dozen students, almost all female, almost all Caucasian (as seems to be the trend in study abroad generally), plus a PhD student and two professors. And me. I find myself, unintentionally but perhaps not surprisingly, a bit like the Chaucerian narrator, in the sense that I am a liminal figure in the group. At this point in my life I too am a professor of medieval studies, one who has traveled with students to the pilgrimage centers of Rome and the Isle of Iona. This is in part my reason for wanting to go along, as I would like to offer a Camino course at Iona and I need to learn how it’s done. But this of course also makes me a student. It is not lost on me that it has been 20 years since I took Prof Gyug’s medieval history class, in spring 1997. The other students coming on the Camino were not yet, or just, born. As I watched the grad student offer her overview of medieval architecture (a similar overview to one I give my own students when we travel to the Cloisters, or Iona or Rome) it occurred to me that I taught my first class as a grad student in that same building, perhaps that same classroom, or one identical to it. And so I find myself (like Chaucer’s narrator) identifying with each of my fellow pilgrims on some level, and yet different, separate, from them all (and now, like him, recording the experience for you, my audience).

This difference was thrown into full relief when we all had to share the bravest thing we’ve ever done. For many of the students, just coming to Fordham, to the Bronx, was their answer (how long ago my own move seems—I came to the borough 21 years ago. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, almost half my life). Prof Gyug admitted that volunteering to chair Fordham’s committee on core revision was his (and having just seen that process unfold here at Iona, I believe it!). Mine? Having a C-section, which was terrifying in its own right (giant needle in the back? Check. Being conscious while people are cutting you open? Check.), but also marked the beginning of motherhood, a daunting and enduring journey all its own. It was the obvious, immediate answer for me, and yet, as I looked around the room, I became acutely aware that I was the only mother in the group. I had my daughter after I had hit all my academic/professional milestones (PhD, job, tenure), so I tend to see her as separate from that process. And yet, she comes with me to campus, to the Cloisters, to the Isle of Iona, to Rome. And there she was again, creating distance between me and my fellow pilgrims, or maybe bridging it—I’m not quite sure which, maybe both.

The Camino is not just an event—it’s a process. For me, it’s multiple processes. As a professor, I’m thinking about logistics: how does the class work? How would I need to adapt it for Iona? What is the budget? What are the risk management issues? As a student, I am trying to learn. Although I suspect I know a good deal of the general information we will cover (the course is intended for undergrads), I am by no means an expert in medieval Spain and I am excited about filling in this gap in my own knowledge base, and also perhaps excavating six lost years of Spanish classes buried somewhere in my memory. Of course, I am also a pilgrim. My interest in medieval studies grew out of a desire to understand my own Catholic upbringing, and when I read or visit the texts and places of medieval Christendom, it is never with complete intellectual detachment, but rather with a sense of connection, of continuity. Our next class meeting is Tuesday, Feb 28–Mardi Gras, or Carnival. The course will span the entirety of Lent and the Easter Triduum; we will be in Spain for Pentecost. It is a time of spiritual rigor and renewal. And of course there is the physical aspect of the pilgrimage—we will be walking, 10+ miles a day, for two weeks. This is, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of the Camino (which I know from my lost Spanish simply means “walk”), the one that will require the most preparation from me. So how to prepare? Like any physical endeavor, it requires a training regimen. This is where being a professor, a student and a mother gets tricky—where do I find the time to practice being a pilgrim? And where can I walk the necessary distance in a place that is safe for me training on my own when I do find the time, as it is likely that I won’t be able to make all the group practice walks b/c of family obligations.

I was mulling over this question when inspiration struck. As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz observed (and I’m paraphrasing), sometimes you need to travel to discover what is in your own backyard. Or, since I (still) live in the Bronx and don’t have a backyard, in the park across the street. I live at the corner of Van Cortlandt Park and Broadway, at the end of the #1 subway line. I looked it up—Broadway is 13 miles through Manhattan, another two here in the Bronx. That’s about the distance we need to be able to cover each day of the pilgrimage. And so I’ve decided to start with what I know and practice by walking the length of Broadway. From a practical standpoint, it’s perfect—it is literally right outside my door. It is paved, busy, safer then trekking the Putnam Trail on my own. And I would never be more than a few blocks from a subway station if I needed to get home. But I also love the idea of being a tourist in my own city. I have probably at some point or other traversed most of the length of Broadway, but I’ve never done it intentionally, or comprehensively. I expect to take lots of photos on the Camino, but why not start with the Great White Way—I’ve heard rumors that it’s a travel destination as well. But apart from being safe and convenient and interesting, there is also a personal aspect to it as well. I now live at one end of Broadway, the northern terminus of the #1 Subway. But there was a time, growing up in Staten Island, when South Ferry, the southern terminus, was the beginning. A time in grad school when I would visit my dad at his office at 17 Battery Place, a short walk from the start of Broadway, and let him take me to lunch or dinner. And then 9/11 happened. A week after I began working at Iona. I have not really been to the southern tip of Manhattan since, beyond driving under and past it, with one notable exception—I traveled from Iona to the SI ferry via public transit to meet my dad and go with him to his oncologist on SI during Heritage Week 2009. I was 4 ½ months pregnant. We found out he had a cancer that could not be cured, a cancer that may well have been caused by the toxic fallout of the Twin Towers.

Childhood, motherhood, academia, all converged and collapsed in that moment. Since then, my daughter has entered the world, my dad departed it. And I find myself staring at Broadway and seeing in it an opportunity to link my own past and present with a ribbon of asphalt, to draw it all together by experiencing the length as a whole rather than discrete parts. And all this in the service of preparing for the Camino, which also has me linking past and present in a different way, against the backdrop of the liturgical calendar, which medievalists will tell you is both linear and cyclical (it is quite possible I picked that up in Prof Gyug’s class in 1997). It all seems right and fitting.

So this week I start walking. I saw one of the Van Cortlandt Park hawks flying up to a tree with her breakfast, all shaggy with her warm winter feathers—I haven’t seen her since October, assumed she had migrated. But there she was. I watched her as she surveyed her domain from her perch in Van Cortlandt’s Tail, the little greenspace next to my building, just south of the park proper, on the corner of Broadway. I used to watch the hawks at Fordham, nesting high on the façade of Collins Hall. I just taught the book H is for Hawk, about an academic who loses her father. I took it as a good sign.

 

Procrastination and How to Overcome It – Ivy Stabell

#HowIProcrastinate

In college, I was the Empress of the All-Nighter. An absolute champ. I’d open up a blank Word document, spread my class notes and books around me in a 360-degree rubbish heap of thoughts, crack a Red Bull, and just go, for hours and hours. I’d mutter to myself, half nobly and half self-pityingly, the lines of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” The deadline pressure made me focused and strong, and I’d crank out page after page in the sortof silence of a college dorm at 2am. I even liked it. There’s a particular pleasure that comes with the next-day weariness of enormous academic output, and the nap I’d take the next afternoon when classes were done for the day – oh yeah, that was good stuff.

These days I’m somewhat reformed. I no longer cram major intellectual labor into one epic night, now knowing with age and experiences of both triumph and shame, that I’ve got better ideas when they’ve percolated over days, weeks, even months, and I’m more crafty in my delivery when I’ve been through several careful revisions. I break projects up into daily tasks and try to get through them all, one at a time, at a reasonable pace. And generally speaking, when I finish my work these days, I’m proud of what I’ve written, and it’s done on time. Maybe not well in advance of the deadline, but at least on the right day, by 11:59pm, Pacific Standard Time.

But I’ve still not conquered the day-to-day procrastination problem. I’m the worst. I’ll call random friends, make 19 cups of tea, answer not-at-all-urgent emails, and of course, click on random internet bullshit.

Here’s my list of the Top 5 Categories of Internet Distraction I am Likely to Click On:

1) shark or orca videos. Never cats. Gross.

2) photo galleries of Kate Middleton’s outfits.

3) 100% of theonion.com

4) political articles, especially the kind that make me angry

5) personality quizzes, all varieties. Today I discovered in the “Which British Film Acting Legend Are You?” quiz that I’m Dame Judy Dench. Unexpected, but I’ll take it.

Recently, I asked one of my classes to write for a few minutes about what their writing process looks like, what they like about it, and what they hoped to change. There were lots of cool things in that stack of papers, but one frustration shared by many was a penchant for procrastination. Over the years, I’ve had many a student sheepishly admit to this problem. But never fear. I assure you, this particular brand of self-loathing is widely shared amongst students and faculty. I therefore dedicate this blog post you, my people! My fellow distracted, stalling people! Solidarity!

But also, mentorship. Procrastination is far from the deadliest of sins, and we shouldn’t feel too terrible about being engaged in non-work things that give us joy. Joy, I think, is downright essential. But, beyond the penalties that go with missing deadlines, procrastination can have another harsh consequence. When I was in college, I was smart, engaged, and interested. I did all my work and was invested in the ideas my courses engaged me in. But because I was overbooked, bad at planning, and a terrible daytime procrastinator, I wrote all my papers at the last minute. I always got good grades, but I never had the satisfaction of knowing I’d drained the tank on a particular task. Each time, I knew I could have done more. So let me share my very best anti-procrastination tips with you, as one who knows the struggle, and as one who knows the lingering disappointment that comes at the end, when you know you had more to give. We can’t get it right every time, but my goal for myself and for us all: feel this way as little as possible.

Top 5 Procrastination Curbing Practices:

1) The Buddy System: find a friend who is far better at focusing than you are, and beg them to be your work buddy. Ideally someone whose disapproval you dread enough to shape up and buckle down. Clark and Moretti are both good picks, for the record.

2) Internet-Free: so important. Find an Iona wireless deadspot or a cheap-o coffee shop that won’t give you their password, or if all else fails, turn off your wifi. If you can’t bear the idea of leaving your phone behind, bury it somewhere in an inconvenient corner of your bag.

3) Inspiring Environment: I like spaces that make me feel like its time to be SERIOUS. The Harry Potter room on campus is pretty good, or find the fanciest local library you’ve got.

4) 3 hour Chunks of Time: never write, study, etc. for more than 3 hours of a time. Take a break. But also, really crank during those three hours so that you deserve it.

5) Take Inspiration in Your Successes: when I’m starting something new and feel like I’ve completely forgotten how to write a good sentence, or whatever the task may be, I look into my archives of Done Work. It’s so reassuring to remember that I know how to survive this task and even do it well.