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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interview: Downton Abbey historical advisor Alastair Bruce visits the Triangle

Posted by on Tue, Dec 30, 2014 at 4:33 PM

Downton Abbey historical advisor Alastair Bruce greets UNC-TV guests at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary. - COURTESY OF LIZ BOWLES / UNC-TV
  • courtesy of Liz Bowles / UNC-TV
  • Downton Abbey historical advisor Alastair Bruce greets UNC-TV guests at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary.
When Downton Abbey premieres its anxiously anticipated fifth season on Sunday, Jan. 4, at 9:00 p.m. on UNC-TV, fans will revel in the lives and loves of the Earl of Grantham and his extended family—and the de facto family of servants with whom their lives are closely intertwined. But an important part of the show’s appeal is its meticulous attention to historical detail. For that, you can thank not just the pen of series creator Julian Fellowes, but also the strict yet kind supervision of historical advisor Alastair Bruce, OBE, Queen’s Herald, Territorial Army Colonel and Equerry to Prince Edward.

Bruce has been touring stateside to promote the new season as well as a documentary about his tenure as Downton historical advisor, which will air immediately following the Season 5 premiere. I asked him how he analyzed the appeal of the show, which might have been relished by specialist audiences only, but is instead watched in 200 countries by an estimated 120 million viewers.

He thinks the appeal has several parts. Many people with European backgrounds are descended from someone who either lived in a grand house or, more likely, served below stairs. And in a “free and open society," we live in a culture without much structure. Although the stratification depicted at Downton is intrinsically unfair, “everyone had a place and felt that they were contributing to the great scheme of things,” Bruce says.

“People long for the strong bonds of courtesy that feed through it all," he continues. "You were respected, regardless of your place. And although human beings will always be sinners, there was a clear idea of what was right and what was wrong. If you wanted to have an affair, you knew it was wrong; the social contracts were absolutely clear.”

When the series first appeared, I assumed that the appeal was largely for Americans, who sometimes seem to long for a hereditary aristocracy to solve troublesome leadership vacuums. But the show was strongly popular in the UK from the first episode. Bruce says that for the British, now is a time when they can embrace their own national history in a time of renewal.

In 1832, the First Reform Act initiated electoral reforms in Britain, which continued as class boundaries eroded further during the conflagration of the Great War of 1914–’18—one reason why Downton Abbey is set in this time period.

“For a long time, particularly in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, British films and television were extremely uncomfortable with an aristocratic past, showing their members as stupid or bad, upper class twits and malevolent villains,” Bruce says. “But there has been an evolution in Britain. Since Tony Blair abolished hereditary peerages, so even members who had traditionally inherited a seat had to be elected by their constituencies, British society has been evolving so as not to be offended by their past.” Instead, they embrace it in all its splendor, as it appears in Downton Abbey.

One aspect of the show that puzzles some viewers is the extraordinary closeness of the upstairs and downstairs people. After all, you have another person dressing you and coming into the bedroom when you are in bed with your spouse. Bruce says that that a class structure in which everyone clearly knows their place facilitates the relationship of the Earl of Grantham and his valet, who served closely with him during the Second Boer War. Although they would not dream of socializing with one another, in the privileged space of their personal relationship, a strong bond is formed.

Bruce is a stickler for minute historical details, from dress to manners, dining to driving. His one regret has to do with the character played by Shirley MacLaine, the Earl’s wife’s nouveau riche American mother. “I let her down by not persevering in helping her to temper her brilliant performance,” he says. Because many Americans who suddenly became rich were self-conscious about appearing unpolished, they were “almost more perfect in manner than the British.” There would not have been a hint of her working class origins.

I suggested that part of the show's appeal was how it deals with contemporary issues in a historical setting—particularly the gay footman, Thomas, and the African-American bandleader who made a brief appearance as a romantic interest for saucy Lady Rose. “We can never escape from the environment in which we live,” Bruce says. “It has to tell a story in the present. It is a great sadness to me that Thomas hasn’t had a romantic relationship as other characters have. Many footmen were gay. If you had five sons, and one of them was attractive and tall, you would have taken him up to the big house to be a footman. It may be too much of a generalization, but a footman had to have a great sense of self, be impeccably turned out and be brilliant at it, because his good appearance reflected on the house. Thomas would have found soul-mates.”

Bruce does not anticipate this storyline soon, though. “Some parts of society [today] are more generous,” he says, “and others more intolerant in reaction.”

What kinds of incongruities bother him in other period pieces? “What really annoys me are incorrect medal ribbons,” he replies. “Someone in the armed forces can identify everything about the person they’re talking to. You can see if someone is brave, and if they have a good conduct medal. Anyone who had been in the military for a long time without one would be suspect. In one scene, a person appeared without his World War I medals. I insisted that extras appeared in the scene with the correct medals. It’s not hard to do it correctly, you can find it on Wikipedia. Still, you see productions in which ribbons are worn upside down. I vilify productions fearful of doing it right.”

But Downton Abbey doesn’t hesitate to call Bruce to confer on the tiniest details. Individuals are addressed correctly, by their station, not their first names, which would have been shocking to the Edwardians. Swearing is taboo. Posture is important, as is the way one behaves at a meal (no leaning on the table, please). No profligate touching, either. “We shake hands and kiss because we have antibiotics,” Bruce says.

One extraordinary aspect of the show is the attention paid to the costumes, which have evolved from Edwardian elegance to the more revealing styles of the 1920s—with more flappers to come, I suspect. The detailed, scrupulously correct garments (and undergarments) vividly create character. An exhibition of Downton Abbey costumes, which spent the summer at Winterthur in Wilmington, Delaware, is coming to Biltmore House in Asheville from February 5–May 25

As at Winterthur, Biltmore will contrast the daily life of grand houses in England and America. The exhibit reveals that the show is visually accurate because designer Caroline McCall has repurposed unique, fragile vintage pieces in new gowns that can withstand the rigors of filming. Bruce says that the costume department works hard “sewing beads on as they fall off” fragments of antique beaded dresses.

Would Bruce like to have lived in a different historical period? Emphatically not. He sees the role of a historian as being to “challenge people to examine the past and be kinder to each other,” especially younger audiences, whom he wishes would be more engaged with history.

As such, he cares deeply about every detail. After all, it is his hands we see in the opening credits, using a ruler to align place settings at the table. As for quibbles over a bit of a language snafu here and there? Bruce is constantly on the alert, rebuking “OK” and other modern phrases. He says, “If you hear a word or phrase on the show, Julian [Fellowes] has a source for it.” But Bruce embraces the attacks of fellow nitpickers. It means people are enjoying the story, so he just “gets the pen and paper out to crack on.”
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    The beloved British class drama returns for a fifth season on Sunday, Jan. 4.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Return of Dr. Thunder: One cat’s journey from Texas to North Carolina to the afterlife—and back

Posted by , and on Tue, Dec 9, 2014 at 1:29 PM

photo courtesy of Kellie Hamilton - TINY MONTY ... OR DR. THUNDER?
  • Tiny Monty ... or Dr. Thunder?
  • photo courtesy of Kellie Hamilton
There is something about cats that makes you ponder the uncanny.

In "The Return of Dr. Thunder," Kellie Hamilton shares the story of how one cat traveled from Texas to North Carolina to the Great Beyond. And then, possibly, back again.

We love the quirky humor of this story, and the gentle way that the narrator approaches it. The cat's owner later said that he felt silly revealing his belief in reincarnated pets, but as the ending shows, he's not the only one out there wondering if his cat is a part of something larger—some vast unknown, a cosmic cattery we can only glimpse.

"Whether a lot of us admit it or not, many of us have a similar sense of having known a person or a pet before," says Kellie. "To have somebody who's willing to go into it and talk about it—to me, that was a gift."

Kellie lives on a small farm in Rougemont with her husband, son and daughter. In addition to producing audio stories, Kellie works as a technical writer, project manager, equestrian, donkey breeder and fainting goat broker.

For her next assignment, she's collecting stories of vacations gone awry. Email your tales of airport misadventures and other lost-in-translation moments to and we’ll pass them along.

Audio Under the Stars is an outdoor community listening party. Each summer, we curate a monthly playlist of interesting, funny, or otherwise compelling audio stories around a specific theme, and invite everyone to join us to share them under the stars. We welcome great stories from all over, but some of our favorites have a local flavor. Many are produced by the audiophiles at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies. We welcome submissions or ideas at You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter @AudioStars.

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    An audio tale of feline reincarnation, courtesy of Audio Under the Stars

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Is the Hopscotch Design Festival for you?

Posted by on Mon, Sep 1, 2014 at 2:22 PM

Matt Muñoz and Greg Lowenhagen at the Federal - PHOTO BY BRIAN HOWE
  • photo by Brian Howe
  • Matt Muñoz and Greg Lowenhagen at the Federal
Hopscotch Design Festival
Sept. 3 and 4

If you’re a hardcore design head—architectural or digital, graphic or urban—then the new Hopscotch Design Festival, a collaboration between Hopscotch Music and Raleigh design firm New Kind, is a no-brainer. Following the music festival’s example, it brings more than 25 events with 36 local and national design leaders—from fields as diverse as video games, music and sustainable transit—to a walk-able spread of venues in downtown Raleigh.

But for the casual observer, who is asked to pay $150 (or $75 as an add-on to a Hopscotch Music wristband) for two days of design talks in the middle of the work week, the attraction is less obvious. And while most people know what a music festival is, what is a design festival anyway?

We reported on the origins of Hopscotch Design when it was first announced in March. Now, as it prepares to kick off Wednesday and Thursday (tickets are still available), we sat down at The Federal in Durham with cofounders Greg Lowenhagen, the majority owner of Hopscotch, and Matt Muñoz, chief design officer of New Kind, to answer some of our lingering questions.

INDY: What was the rationale behind adding another festival to Hopscotch?

Greg Lowenhagen: We had no grand design to add anything, but you’re always curious about what you can do next. I was meeting with city councilors and starting to take a more city-wide view. When I heard from Councilwoman Mary Ann Baldwin that Matt [Muñoz] and Jonathan Opp from New Kind were thinking about doing a design day or two, we met for coffee and started talking about it. If we were going to do something different, it had to be something personally interesting because of the time and effort it takes. And the secondary thing is, does it work financially, is it going to hurt us, is it too odd of a brand fit? All of those answers came out to, “Let’s do this.”

INDY: How did it fit the brand? Hopscotch is a young music festival, and if you’re going to add a sub-festival, the most obvious candidates are things people are already familiar with—a film festival or even a tech fest, which people have the SXSW precedent for.

GL: Those have been pitched to us. But when I think of Raleigh I don’t think of film. It’s done really well elsewhere, including here in Durham, which has Full Frame. And we have a nice tech component to Design and that will continue to grow. But there’s the Internet Summit in Raleigh. As you mentioned, SXSW has Interactive, which is the preeminent one nationally. There are a lot of tech conferences. I think people might be tired of talking about tech in its own column.

I like the Design piece because it’s broad, the way we program Hopscotch; it offers the ability to learn a little bit from a lot of different people in different fields who are really good at what they do, whether it’s architecture, graphic design, music, film, food, manufacturing. What are they making; how are they doing it? That’s really relevant in growing global cities—in Asia, in the Middle East and here. Raleigh’s one of those, Durham’s one of those, Carrboro’s one of those. We think Hopscotch Music really fits because it’s community-based first. Design is an integral component of cities here and it’s becoming more so, and we want to produce an event for those folks.

Matt Muñoz: There’s such an amazing design community around here. It’s not always about being a professional as an architect or graphic designer or urban planner. It’s people who have a way of thinking about their vision and putting it into action. Entrepreneurs, start-ups. The mayor’s State of the City address was about how Raleigh is on the top of so many lists because of intentional, thoughtful design. That’s one of the fundamental ways we think about design: It’s creation with intent. We wanted to bring people who are doing those things together to cross-pollinate ideas.

INDY: I definitely see how the concept of design fits Raleigh. What I’m curious about is how it fits a festival model. What makes this a festival for a general audience and not a trade show for specialists?

MM: With a trade show, it’s usually a conference environment. You’re in one location and you have very specific trade-oriented things you’re doing. This is sort of a mash-up. There are elements of a design conference, because we’ve got speakers. But play is such an integral part of creating something. It can open the mind up. That’s why the Hopscotch Music model is such an interesting, unique thing. You can jump around, discover new music. It might be bands on the international stage or bands in your back yard. But it’s this really casual, bouncing-around experience. We thought, “How can we create something that provides the same level of inspiration, networking, parties, fun?”

GL: What makes it a festival is what makes Hopscotch Music a festival. It’s an opportunity for somebody, whether they’re a professional designer or a casual architecture fan or a tech dabbler, to see all these people in one place. If you’re out in San Francisco, you might catch a couple of shows or a talk. The music festival costs $150 for three days, and there’s a chance that you might see more shows than you see in the next six months or year. This is the same with Design. You can’t dedicate a ton of time to TED Talks online, but here you have the ability to see an amalgamation of these folks over two days. It isn’t just academic, it’s a social thing.

INDY: I did wonder if TED Talks were a good point of reference here—big ideas talks?

GL: I watched 30 of them on Netflix that were design-oriented this year, but I did it in my bedroom. Doing it at CAM with 200 other people, or with 40 people at a cool, intimate space like Flanders Gallery, and being able to talk to people when it’s over? It’s just different from reading their book.

MM: It’s not a formal conference where it’s like, “You can’t come into this room.” You’re going to be walking around on the same streets as the speakers whose ideas you’ve just fallen in love with. You’re able to talk to them and ask them questions. We’ve got Elle Luna on Twitter communicating with attendees in Raleigh, already talking about getting together. That’s not the usual conversation.

GL: That doesn’t really happen at music festivals either. There’s a conversational piece to this that’s really cool. I think there’s going to be a certain informality. The simple answer of why we don’t call it a conference is: What does a conference connote in your mind?

INDY: Boring.

GL: Boring. But this is going to be fun. There was no consideration of ever calling it a conference or expo or summit. It’s a festival, people gathering in venues.

MM: But beyond being a festival, it’s about ongoing education and discovery and curiosity. One of the things we’re still working on is, for example, AIA architects getting credits for coming. It’s serious play.

INDY: Did you ever consider putting it all in one space or bundling it with Hopscotch Music entry to get people in for the first year?

MM: That was a part of some earlier conversations. But one of the elements of the Hopscotch experience is that you’re jumping around, so that was quickly off the table. And we’ve done some add-ons where you can buy a Design pass for $75, but that’s as integrated as we could get it for the first year.

INDY: Any sense of who is buying these tickets, whether its predominantly people who are in the design world or laypeople?

GL: There’s no metric for that yet. My sense is that, as you’d expect, a lot are designers, but there are indications that there are lots of other people too. We set the capacity at 600 each day. We have already hit our target for how many people we thought might add Design for $75. They could be designers who also have music passes, but I get the sense they might be, as you said, laypeople—non-designers who are interested in experiencing another piece of Hopscotch.

INDY: Is it important to you to reach laypeople or is it OK just being for designers?

MM: We’re OK with however it settles out this year, of course. But whether you’re a teacher creating a classroom with round desks to have more conversation, or a fashion designer, you’re both doing the same thing. There’s a certain amount of courage and creativity and grit that goes into creating an idea.

GL: I think that’s where our growth will come first—the design community, people who are on teams at local firms. But I think eventually it does reach a wider audience because it’s going to be interesting and spread word-of-mouth, the way Music did. Part of the charm of Hopscotch is freedom of choice. You spent your hard-earned money for your wristband and feel empowered to say, “Cool, they gave me 12 different choices for this time slot.” That’s the beauty of it. I think with Design, it’s going to work the same way. We’ll see this week.

MM: You choose your own adventure; we’re just providing the grid. Our partners, like Joule and Morning Times and Five Star—you go to these places and bring your badge and get drink specials, so we start to create some gravitation to these spaces for this community, and the conversation continues.

GL: The diversity of interest in Music attendees has led us to believe there’s the same diversity of interest in Design attendees. We don’t funnel you toward one stage and you don’t have to sit through something if you’re not interested. Large festivals usually pen you in and you’ve got to buy their beer and food. Here, you can get up halfway through a talk, or catch parts of three in one time slot. But three rooms won’t be empty while one has every attendee in it.

MM: That freedom of choice also extends to the speakers. We haven’t told them what they have to talk about. We’ve chosen them because we think they’re a cultural and intellectual fit. We want to know what they’re working on now, what they want to share with people.

INDY: What kinds of things can people expect besides talks?

MM: You’ve got the interactive Hopscotch Lab. And we partner with the Jamie Hahn Foundation for a “Designing a Better Food System” lunch after two keynotes on Wednesday morning.

GL: We’ve got a concert on Wednesday at Lincoln Theater, Lost in the Trees and Gross Ghost. That’s just a Wednesday-night cut-loose party. After a full day of listening, learning and talking, at some point, you just want to have a cocktail and get a bite to eat.

INDY: In assembling the lineup, did you start with a big wish list, or start with a few people you knew and chase the connections out from there?

GL: Exactly like that. We wanted Rob Cotter from Organic Transit, Pierce Freelon and Apple Juice Kid from Beat Making Lab, Matt Tomasulo in Raleigh—a leader crop doing very interesting things in their fields. But wouldn’t it be neat if they were with people from San Francisco, Austin, Dublin, Chicago, L.A., who work at Pinterest or IBM or do films with Wes Anderson? One difference between booking Music and Design is that Music is a very totalitarian process. [Laughs] We’ll take some suggestions, but we’re pretty close to the vest. With Design, from the outset, we had an advisory committee of influencers in the community. We asked, “Who would you like to see? No guarantees, but we’d love ideas.”

INDY: What binds all these people from different fields together?

MM: Rob Cotter says, “How can we have light sustainable transportation devices?” That doesn’t exist out there, so he’s created it. Matt Tomasulo sees an empty space and says, “What happens if we turn a shipping container into a biergarten?” and it wins a Sir Walter Raleigh Design Award. Sarah Miller Caldicott, who’s channeling Edison, her great-grandfather, is figuring out how to bring people together to invent. They’re all asking, “How do I make this vision happen in whatever field I’m passionate about?”

INDY: What would a win look like for Hopscotch Design, attendance-wise?

GL: We’re probably not going to hit the full-on 600 sell-out cap, but we’re real happy with the numbers right now. We were right, barring any catastrophe in the next week, that it was a measured fiscal risk. It’s definitely not going to damage Hopscotch Music Festival in any way, which was key to me from the beginning. Our expenses aren’t crazy, and if we did sell out, we’d make a good bit of money this year. As it stands, we’re breaking even for certain.

MM: And people are excited about it.

INDY: How do you know they’re excited?

MM: They’re telling us on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve gotten emails from people saying, “Hey, we are so excited to meet Doug Powell, he’s working at IBM and we’ve run a big corporate office, any chance that we could meet?”

GL: Excited to the point where they’re sending me emails for next year’s speakers. You know when you’re getting emails to the “info@” address that there’s interest out there.

INDY: The pitch to design heads is crystal clear to me. What’s your elevator pitch to the layperson, and what are you doing to communicate it to them?

GL: You can’t see this assemblage of thinkers, makers, storytellers and doers in all these different fields under the umbrella of design assembled anywhere else in North Carolina. There’s life lessons for CEOs, midlevel executives, college students, everyone. If you’re a banker, it could still matter to you. Does that mean everyone’s going to come? No, but if it interests you enough once you’ve looked at who the speakers are, you should come.

MM: It’s for the layperson with a particular mindset. “I’m creative, I care about doing things that excite me.” Those people are a sponge for everything, and to them, this is like the best thing ever.

INDY: So you’re casting a broad net, but it’s one that’s going to catch a certain kind of person.

MM: That’s exactly right.

GG: Something I learned in year one of Hopscotch Music is that it’s a mistake to pigeonhole what people are interested in, because you’d be shocked at how diverse people’s interests are. I really have no idea who’s showing up next week, I just know there’s going to be several hundred of them and I expect them to come from all different walks of life.

Look for more in the INDY's Hopscotch package in the Sept. 3 issue.

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    We ask cofounders Greg Lowenhagen and Matt Muñoz some of our lingering questions about Hopscotch’s new component

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Monday, August 18, 2014

One: A Story of Love and Equality at the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

Posted by on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 12:49 PM

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Becca Roth had never actually been to North Carolina before starting work on her award-winning documentary One: A Story of Love and Equality, which chronicles her interactions with people on both sides of a controversial anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment. Still, the state and its rocky history with gay rights had always intrigued her.

“I had a friend from college who was from Hendersonville,” says Roth, “and she always talked about the difference between being in Hendersonville, having to be completely closeted, and going 30 minutes to Asheville, where you can do whatever you want. So I was interested in doing a film to understand where people were coming from on both sides."

“When I found out about Amendment One, it seemed like the perfect opportunity,” Roth continues. “Even though it did pass, North Carolina seemed like one of the most mixed states in terms of the issue, and that’s what I wanted to explore with the film.”

On Sunday, Roth’s film had its first public screening in the state for a crowd of about 100 at the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at Durham’s Carolina Theatre. (If you missed it, it screens again this Thursday.)
Roth says she hadn’t been to the festival before, but was impressed by what she experienced. “There’s a real loyalty in the festival’s audience,” she says. “When I’m here, I feel the impact on everyone watching it and how it’s close to their lives. It’s one of the most responsive audiences we’ve had.”

According to Roth’s director’s statement, the film grew out of an experience in high school when she organized an LGBT prom in rural Ohio that was met with heated protests. “We called them ignorant,” she writes. “They called us sinners.” Roth says that the most meaningful part of making the film was exploring these different attitudes from an empathetic perspective.

“If you want to further the discussion, you can’t just tell people that they’re wrong—you have to meet them where they are and let them share their stories and experiences and reveal their humanity,” she says. ”That’s kind of the whole purpose of the film. It’s important for people on both sides of the community to have conversations about it, even if they’re coming from different places.”

One: A Story of Love and Equality screens at 7:20 p.m. on Thursday, Aug.21 at the Carolina Theatre as part of the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The festival runs through Aug. 24. This week, it also features a new “Retrofantastique” series of double-features of older movies that have LGBT themes or have traditionally been popular with LGBT audiences. For more information, visit the Carolina Theatre’s website.
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    The festival, currently in progress at the Carolina Theatre, runs through Aug. 24

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Elizabeth Streb: the INDY interview

Posted by on Thu, Mar 13, 2014 at 10:39 AM

STREB Extreme Action’s company name is truth in advertising: a group of seven superbly-trained athletes who propel themselves into harm’s way, repeatedly—against walls and floors, off of trampolines and multi-story trapeze-like platforms, into and out of close encounters with a spinning industrial I-beam as it careens across stage, and much, much more. In our Feb 17, 2010 story on the CHAT Festival at UNC-Chapel Hill, I described their edge-of-your-seat maneuvers, set to a pulsing techno soundtrack and accompanied by live and digitized video, as “a highly caffeinated remix of death-defying circus acts, gymnastics, motion-picture stunt work and modern dance."

I spoke with choreographer, self-styled action architect—and MacArthur Foundation "Genius grant" award winner—Elizabeth Streb by phone on Feb. 6, 2010, a snowy afternoon in Philadelphia, between the company’s matinee and evening performances at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theater.

Carolina Performing Arts presents her company next Tuesday and Wednesday, Mar. 18-19, 2014, in Memorial Hall. Click here for more information and tickets for the show.

Independent: How would you characterize your interest in technology in terms of the work you’re interested in doing on stage? What does technology enable you to do?

Elizabeth Streb: I would say it’s equal: My interest and passion in technology and hardware – mechanical, electronic, hydraulic, what have you – my love for those types for technology is equal to my love of movement.  I see them completely similarly; they’re a congruency to me. For the idea of STREB, I started working with more quotidian objects back in the early 1980s: sticks, wood, hills, ropes and hoops. As I developed, I really started to get more metal and hardware devices involved in what I was doing.

Choreographer, inventor, and action architect Elizabeth Streb
  • Choreographer, inventor, and action architect Elizabeth Streb

It’s like music. As when someone, way back when, decided the human voice alone wasn’t sufficient to express everything the human might express in terms of pitch, key, melody and harmony, I felt that in a Newtonian universe, on the ground, the body’s biomechanical system, which lends itself to motion, was not, in itself, sufficient. Not to express all that can be expressed in terms of physicality.

So we invent hardware, and collaborate with a lot of different technicians, from MIT’s Media Lab and ASU Electronic Arts department to [trapeze artists and engineers] Noe and Ivan Espana, to create pieces of equipment that we can inhabit and develop new physical spatial and temporal vocabularies.

I don’t recall who defined technology as devices that extend the body’s various capacities. It sounds like one of your main interests involves extending the body’s abilities to do a number of things.

It’s sort of a funny thing. I think the initial, more basic question is, "What is the potential content of action?" Not the body doing movement, or machines working the beautiful way they work and function, or the utilitarian aspects of machines and the body, separately and together. But is there a language, exactly, that we can construct with physicality—whether it’s machine-based, electronically-based or physically-based—that will have its own grammar and syntax? That’s my goal.

I’m not just adding equipment and technology because I like it—although I really do. I do it because I think… [pauses] Okay. Let’s take just one aspect of what it means to move and talk about space. If I’m only 5 feet 7 inches tall, and I go into a theater that happens to be 30 or 40 feet tall, then I’m essentially ignoring the major hunk of that space. And for visual and physical reasons, I think that’s a disappointment to the audience and also sort of a tragedy.

When we have a wheel, an injection device, or cables and harnesses, that gets us up into that location. Otherwise, I feel that that location, that empty space, should not exist.

Continue reading…

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Neal Bell on In Secret, a new film adaptation of his stage play

Posted by on Mon, Mar 3, 2014 at 11:18 AM

  • photo by Phil Bray
  • In Secret
After its professional New York premiere, it took almost 17 years for Neal Bell’s stage play Thérèse Raquin to make it to the big screen in the form of the recently-released In Secret, directed by Charlie Stratton and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac. But for Bell, the result was worth the wait.

“It’s exciting and strange,” says Bell, a professor of theater studies at Duke University. “I hadn’t seen the movie until it opened, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I was really surprised and delighted to see that it came out so well.” The film came about after Stratton directed Bell’s play for a Los Angeles production. Stratton was impressed enough with the material that he set about bringing it to the screen.

“He spent the next 15 or so years trying to put it together and then losing his actors or his funding,” Bell says. “There were all kinds of different people attached. Glenn Close was interested at one point; I think Gerard Butler was interested. And then, about two summers ago, he called me to say he’d gotten the funding, and the actors had come together at the same moment!” Bell has nothing but praise for Stratton, whom he calls “an incredibly honorable and decent guy, along with very, very talented.”

Bell’s play, an adaptation of Émile Zola’s classic novel, has an odd history of its own. He originally wrote it as the libretto for a proposed musical called The Wild Party by Michael John LaChiusa. “He wrote what I thought was an incredibly beautiful score, but decided he wasn’t satisfied with his work,” Bell says. “I had this orphaned libretto, and a young guy at NYU asked me if he could direct it as a senior distinction play, so I turned it back into a straight play. It got picked up by regional theaters and went on from there.”

Bell credits the play’s long run and eventual film adaptation to Zola’s original story. “It had an influence on film noir,” he says of Zola’s novel. “The Postman Always Rings Twice is almost a literal adaptation of it. It fascinated me because of how it tells the tale of what happens after the lovers commit murder and get away with it.”

Though his involvement in the production of In Secret was limited, Bell has an extensive background writing for television, including a stint under fellow Duke professor Michael Malone at daytime soap One Life to Live. Bell currently teaches a course on TV writing at Duke, where his students watch the one-season classic My So-Called Life and then plot out episodes for the second season that never was.

“I feel like we’re in the middle of a second golden age of television,” Bell says, “and that the long-form writing being done for it is as good as any playwriting that’s being done in New York right now.”

He’s remaining true to his theater roots, most recently with an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday at Little Green Pig. Still, he admits that the film of In Secret has given him some new credibility with certain people, thanks to Harry Potter co-star Tom Felton’s presence. “If I’m talking to a younger person,” he says, “that’s generally what I lead with.”
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    The Duke professor's play Thérèse Raquin is based on Émile Zola’s classic novel

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"A lot of the writing process is just radically preferring something to something else." George Saunders on writing

Posted by on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 at 12:43 PM

  • Photo by Chloe Aftel
In anticipation of George Saunders' reading at Duke on Tuesday, Feb. 4, we called him at his Syracuse home for this long conversation about the art of writing, the life of the modern author and the “misfires of empathy” that comprise Tenth of December. The full transcript is below. Click here to return to the story that appeared in print.

INDY: You’re known for a very recognizable, particular style. Is there anything that sets Tenth of December apart from your prior books, in terms of process or outcome?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: After my previous book, I felt a little—not exactly blank, but I didn’t have a strong idea of what I would do next, fictionally. So I took some time to write nonfiction, travel a bit and just take a breath. Twain used to talk about how between books, the well would start to fill up. So I think I made a good move in terms of letting that well fill up a bit. This book came out of a period of more concentrated effort to just be a fiction writer and let the other kinds of writing go. Also, travel writing was really enriching as a chance for a person in mid-life to go out into the world and have their perceptions tested and reworked a little bit. That was probably the biggest difference, but you know, these books take so long that the intentionality is kind of blurry. That’s part of the fun—you’re going in every day and you look up after a period and go, “Oh, so this is the book.”

This book is selling better than usual for you—do you have any inkling why that is?

The main reason is that the New York Times Magazine ran a big profile on the cover about a year ago. It had this provocative headline, “The Best Book You’ll Read All Year” or something like that. That shot it out of a cannon, and then there were four or five other good reviews. It felt really fortunate to have coverage early, and media kind of begets media, so suddenly, you’re getting more attention. I also think the book is arguably more accessible than my earlier work. If people who had never read my work picked up CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I’m sure there’d be a few casualties along the way. [Laughs] This one, I think, makes a little bit better of a bridge. Maybe there are a few more ostensibly realist stories. But honestly, I’m not quite sure—I do know it’s sold more, and it’s been a lot of fun to have a bigger audience. I wouldn’t have predicted it if you’d called me a year ago. I didn’t expect its reception to be markedly different from the other books.

Then it’s fortuitous that it’s a good Saunders starter book.

Yeah, I think it is. I feel pretty confident giving it to people who aren’t hardcore short story readers. I think the first story, “Victory Lap,” has some tension, and once you clear the hurdle of its narrative voice, most people get right to the question of, “Will that girl be saved or not?” I hope.

Continue reading…

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    Saunders reads in the FHI Garage in Bay 4 of Smith Warehouse (114 S. Buchanan Ave.) on Tuesday, February 4, at 7 p.m.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Aaron Becker takes children on an illustrated Journey

Posted by on Wed, Jan 1, 2014 at 10:36 AM

Journey Cover
  • Aaron Becker
  • Journey Cover
Aaron Becker has worked on such big-budget CGI-animated films as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. But for his first picture book, Journey (Candlewick Press, $15.99), he turned to a simpler, old-school format. Although he uses computer models of his landscapes to help figure out the look and lighting cues for his dream-like landscapes, the final results are less digital than manual.

"The computer tends to be the beginning of the process, when I'm figuring out compositions, laying out scenes and stuff," says Becker on the phone from a visit to his family in Chapel Hill. "It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is." The end result of his process are simple pen-and-ink drawings painted over in watercolor—though the world he creates is as deep and vivid as anything seen on screen.

From Journey
  • Aaron Becker
  • From Journey
Journey is a wordless update on such classic picture books as Harold and the Purple Crayon. It's a simple story about a lonely little girl in the big city who finds a magical red marker that lets her draw a doorway to a magical world full of castles, airships and lantern-filled forests, and create objects to carry her through this fantastic landscape (an animated trailer created by Becker is available on YouTube).

Since its release in August 2013, it's been selected as one of the best books of the year by the likes of Amazon, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which commissioned Becker to do a special cover for its Book Review, something Becker calls "a highlight" of his experience with the book, along with President Barack Obama buying it on a recent Small Business Sunday shopping trip.

Journey is a departure from Becker's work in film, where he worked doing digital concept design for large-scale motion-capture films, including the widely derided Mars Needs Moms, one of the biggest flops in film history.

"When I went to do the book, I very much purposefully wanted to leave all that behind," says Becker, who cites such classic illustrators as Mercer Mayer and Maurice Sendak as influences.. "I taught myself watercolor and pen-and-ink just to do the book over the course of the summer—I practiced until I felt I was ready to go.

New York Times Book Review Cover
  • Aaron Becker
  • New York Times Book Review Cover
"When I talk with other illustrators about using the computer, the first thing I tell them is that you shouldn't try to do something that you couldn't do with physical materials. Let's say you're trying to put a shadow under something. You should just paint it like you're painting a shadow on paper, but on a computer, you'll find there's a feature that lets you create a shadow under an object, and it looks fake! There's no shortcuts, really. The computer's good at certain things, but as soon as you skip around the fundamentals of good image-making, it fails for sure. For Journey, I wanted to leverage the skills I'd learned from my computer work, but keep the final book hand-made. "

From Journey
  • Aaron Becker
  • From Journey
Becker drew from his own travels to create Journey's fantasy world, from Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and the canals of Venice inspiring the canal-filled castle the girl visits. "I just wanted to have this hodgepodge of European architecture for the locations," he says. "I also used Japanese influences for the pagoda and classic samurai costumes—I lived in Japan in a while, so that was something I wanted to draw from. Stylistically, I drew a lot from Hayao Miyazaki's film, and how he uses color to simplify the world."

Though he was doing contract work for such studios as Lucasfilm while working on Journey, the book's success has allowed Becker to dedicate himself to picture books full time, with two sequels to Journey and other projects on the way. "It's like, thank god!" Becker syas with a laugh. This is the best thing ever! I can do this all day!"

Aaron Becker appears at Flyleaf Books for story time at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2 to read from and sign copies of
Journey. For more information, visit

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Author Jan Brett clucks up the Cinderella story with Cinders

Posted by on Fri, Nov 22, 2013 at 2:16 PM

  • Rhalee Hughes Public Relations and Marketing

If you ever want to get Jan Brett excited, ask her about her chickens. The award-winning author and illustrator’s tales often combine international settings and folklore with the interactions of the human and animal worlds. One such title was The Mitten. a retelling of a Ukrainian folk tale where forest animals come up with their own uses for a lost piece of winter clothing. Other tales have featured the likes of bears, dogs and hedgehogs that have received dozens of awards and reached the top spot on children’s bestseller lists.

But she has a near-anthropological understanding of poultry that she’s brought to her latest book, Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $17.99), a feathery retelling of the classic fairy tale with a Russian setting. She’s currently touring to promote the book, in an enormous tour bus branded with an image of her chicken-princess on the side.

Brett’s encyclopedic knowledge of chickens, gleaned from observing her personal flock of more than 75 birds, inspired the book.

“Both my editor and I breed chickens, and we were talking about how sometimes one little chicken will get a little bit picked on while they’re molting,” Brett says, speaking recently on the phone.

“And then I joked about how when their feathers come in, they look like whole new chickens, and they’re perching like they’re queen of the roost, and my editor and I said, ‘Just like Cinderella!’ at the same time.”

Having already interpreted such classic tales as Beauty and the Beast and Goldilocks and the Three Bears in her past books, Brett was initially reluctant to go back to the well of classic fairy tales, but found herself thinking about how the chickens’ plumage would be a perfect fit for a Russian setting, and how the hierarchy of chickens—the “pecking order,” so to speak—could serve as a metaphor for human behavior.

“They all assume different personalities,” Brett says. “There’s the young pullets, the females, under a year old, and they’re all running around like, ‘I’m so pretty! I’m so pretty!’ And then they get older and they’re a bit more dignified and starting to lay eggs, and they’re acting like it’s the most important thing to happen in the history of the world.

“And then older hens will get bossy, and order younger chickens around, and young chickens will be fighting with each other, and trying to get noticed. They just really looked like they could take on the roles of a story, or a fairy tale in this case. And it lends itself to the Cinderella story—they’re kind of gangling and scrappy at a certain age, and then all the sudden they’re beautiful.”

She’s loved the birds since childhood: “I had a pet chicken as a little girl, and I trained her to ride on the handlebars of my bicycle” Years later, one of her early ideas for a children’s book led to her getting some feed store chicks for research. That helped inspire her 2002 book Daisy Comes Home, and in turn led to her acquiring what she calls “a huge farm of chickens.”

She sells a few, but keeps most of the others: “They live to a nice old age.”

Brett also thoroughly delved into Russian culture and history to create the world of Cinders: “We did a research trip to St. Petersburg and crammed in as much culture as we could in a short time—we saw the ballet, and a symphony concert, and a folk dance concert, and went on walks in the woods and had a hot steam bath and saw some wonderful restored architecture.

"The highlight was probably going to the Museum of Ethnography, where there were mannequins dressed in what was probably the style of the 1800s—I say ‘probably’ because in some of the more traditional villages, they also dressed in this style.”

She admits to wanting to do a few updates to the Cinderella story for her book ("I just didn't want to make the stepmother wicked"), but otherwise loves using animals to tell old-fashioned stories.

“There’s just something human about telling a story animals that’s kind of un-explainable to me, but makes a certain sense when you think about it,” Brett says.

Jan Brett appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23 (the giant "Cinders" bus out front will be hard to miss). This is a signing line ticket event. For more information, visit or call 919-828-1588.

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    If you ever want to get Jan Brett excited, ask her about her chickens.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

When Philadelphia destroyed a community of black radicals: Jason Osder talks about Let the Fire Burn

Posted by on Fri, Sep 20, 2013 at 12:05 PM

  • Zeitgeist Films
Last spring I covered the Tribeca film Festival for Documentary Magazine. I thought that the quality of documentary films was very strong. New HD cameras help to make the images sing, but the films that really jumped out at me relied heavily on archival footage.

The most rigorous use of archival was seen in Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn, which relied exclusively on available footage. For me, it was also the standout film of the festival. Recently I traded emails with the director because I wanted to find out more about the film, but even more importantly I wanted to do what I could to get others to see it.

ARTERY: First, can you tell me a little bit about yourself as a filmmaker and how you came to work on this particular project.

JASON OSDER: I developed an passion for documentary at the Documentary Institute Program at the University of Florida—this group has now become the documentary film program at Wake Forest. I can't say that I had more than a vague idea what it was all about before I went to school there, but I found a mode of communication that seemed to suit my way of thinking and fulfill a longing for expression that I can always remember having.

As for the MOVE story, it is something I remember from being a child growing up in Philadelphia. As a child, you lack the frames that most adult use to understand an event like this: race relations, or police brutality, or militarization or what have you. For me, I was just scared.

Later, when I went away to college I remember being re-choked that this event that had loomed large in my childhood was basically unknown to my peers from other parts of the country.

Do you think that the fact that you identified with the story, from a childhood perspective, influenced the storytelling? I ask this because your answer made me key in on the nature of the deposition footage. It really exists in this strange realm where the child has an intense sense of maturity and gravitas.

Absolutely, it influenced the story telling.

I'm not sure that I would use the word maturity, but I think in a film where the audience is asked to question the truth, the testimony is sort of unimpeachable.

I am particularly interested in the way in which archival footage was used in the film. Can you talk me through the process of making the film from this perspective? Further, at what point did you settle on the idea of taking a very rigorous and formal approach to the project in terms of using only archival footage.

I have to give the editor, Nels Bangerter, major credit for this decision. It happened when he came on and reviewed the footage. I had shot a handful of interviews. I was not interested in interviewing a wide range of people, but getting to the heart of the story through a select group of emotionally revealing interviews with people whose lives’ had been changed by the events. I had shot most of the ones I wanted, including Michael Ward (who is seen as a boy in the film).

When Nels came on, he describes seeing all of the material that I had been collecting for nearly a decade fresh and at once. He saw that there were special possibilities of working with the archival material, especially the hearings. He was the first to realize that we could build drama in those hearing scenes while also delivering the exposition and context that a viewer would need. There was a bit more to it that that, but the whole discussion, from suggestion, to deciding to at least attempt to cut the film in this style happened in less than 48 hours.

Once we made that one radical decision, we strongly agreed that everything else about our approach should be formal, rigorous and classical.

The lack of mediation really works. It takes the footage out of both its social structure as well as the current one. I was recently talking to Chad Fredrichs from the Pruitt-Igoe Myth. He is thinking he will only make historical films using entirely archival footage from now on. What’s next for you?

Actually, I am looking at another incident from 1985—the assassination of an Arab-American activist named Alex Odeh. 

It is still early, but it looks like an opposite approach: exploring the relationship between past and present more overtly by focusing on the present-day efforts of activists trying to get the unsolved murder taken more seriously by the Justice department and the FBI. It is likely that the historical mystery will be revealed through observational shooting of the present-day investigation .

Most people who see a film aren't going to have any idea about the amount of work that went into it.

Well, that is always true, and in a sense, it is what we are going for. A film should feel effortless, like there was not other way it could have happened... but I get your point.

That is, it isn't simply a matter of getting some tapes, going through them, and putting it together to make "sense" of the story. Can you tell me a little bit about the thought process that went into choosing and working with this subject matter? What I'm looking for is something that talks about the ideas in relation to race, power and media—that in some ways can most effectively be dealt with the critical distance of both time and in a way separation—that feels like it could only have been done in this manner using only archival footage.

Well, this is the only way to make THIS film, but there are other films to be made that would say something different about this subject matter. There are storylines and themes that fell away, partly because we decided to use an all archival approach.

I think the strength here is that it becomes a morality play. I think it will be timeless in the sense that it will always seem to say something critical about the present day. It will not date in the way a film with interviews or narration always places itself in the time it was made. This is placed in the time that it happened—like a stage play. There are also valid criticisms for doing it this way.

I also think audiences are changing. They are hyper-sensitized to manipulation. This sort of pastiche approach is a way to defuse some of that suspicion.

Finally, it was always a puzzle with this story: how to represent a truth that is so fraught with conflicting versions? In the end, using the archive is a way that the viewer was always aware that they were seeing a perspective reframed turned out to be the best answer to that challenge of representation. Every piece of footage already had an agenda before it was part of our film—the viewer knows and needs to grapple with this.

Let the Fire Burn plays at 7 tonight at Full Frame Theater, American Tobacco Campus, Durham. Read Lisa Sorg's INDY review

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    It was always a puzzle with this story: how to represent a truth that is so fraught with conflicting versions?

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