As it happens, Rosenberg proposes “scientism” as a positive term to describe a worldview that does not contain a supernatural being. It’s a relatively minor point but it’s indicative of the focus of his book, which aims to provide a positive set of beliefs for today’s atheist. For Rosenberg, who has extensive training in the natural sciences—indeed, he began his education intending to go into physics before switching to philosophy—the issue of God’s existence is a question that’s long been settled by science. Instead, what interests him is what science has to tell us about the reality of our existence.
Independent: Is this your first book on atheism?
Rosenberg: It’s my 14th book but it’s my first book on atheism. But it’s not really a book on atheism. It’s a book about what we atheists should believe, about all the other big issues that, as I say in the book, keep us up at night wondering.
The book begins by saying “there is no God, and we believe there is no God because science rules God’s existence out.” And then goes on to answer all the other questions on the basis of science. So in that sense, it’s not another book proving atheism.
I was going to ask you about popular titles like those by Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion). Those books were very popular, but you’re saying that you don’t think the project of persuading people there is no God is one worth pursuing?
My book differs from all of them in that it is not another indictment of religion, not another brief on the irrationality of a belief in God, not another analysis of how religion seduces us into belief—those are the aims of three of the most popular books. My book is about what else we should believe now that we believe in atheism.
What would you tell people are the basic things atheists should believe?
The quick and dirty version is on page 3 of my book, where there is list of questions and short answers: “Is there a God?” “No.” “What is the nature of reality?” “What physics says it is”—
—“What is the purpose of the universe?”—
—“there is none.” “What’s the meaning of life?” “Ditto.” “Why am I here?” “Just dumb luck.”
We could go through that list, that’s the short-answer list, and the rest of the book substantiates each of those answers and explains why science dictates each of those answers. But the tour goes like this: I try to explain why the nature of reality is what physics tells us it is and nothing more than what physics says, and then to show that biological phenomena are the result of Darwinian natural selection and that is mandated by physics alone. All you need to believe Darwin is to believe physics because Darwin's theory is a consequence of the operation of purely physical processes. All the adaptation and all the appearance of design in the universe could only happen that way. There’s no room for intelligent design.
The strange, tragic and very funny tale of two siblings coming to terms with being part of their parents' performance art experiments as children (from the boy infliltrating a beauty pageant in a dress to the parents staging a mock failed proposal on an airplane), Fang is a personal story for Wilson, though not in the way you'd think. On the phone from his home in Sewanee, Tenn., the soft-spoken Wilson, who appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music tonight at 7:30, answered our questions about the book's roots—and why his own childhood wasn't like the Fangs'.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So the book's been getting strong reviews—what's your reaction to that, and what do you feel is the source of the story's appeal?
Kevin Wilson: Oh, it’s beyond what I had expected. I’m overwhelmed.
I’m thinking that it’s the age-old story of dysfunctional families, which I think strikes a chord with people, and that this dysfunctional family is particularly strange because of the art they create. It taps into that disconnect that children feel from their parents—something that’s been done hundreds of times, and tries to find some new spin on it.
From what you’ve said elsewhere, it sounds the Fangs’ childhood resembles your own—at least superficially.
I grew up in a household where my parents were, I think, very much interested in creating a world separate from the real world for myself and my sister. They were not fond of the outside world, so they created this great place in our house. Not a lot of people came in—they didn’t have many friends—so we were their best friends in a lot of ways, and allowed to do whatever we wanted.
If we wanted to be superheroes, they got us capes. If we wanted to make movies, they showed us how to make stop-motion-animated movies with our Star Wars figures. They allowed us to have this childhood where the outside world existed, and we knew it was there, but it just wasn’t as interesting as what went on between the four of us inside our house.
I drew upon the idea of how we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world growing up, because all you need is your family, and the way that becomes complicated as you get older, and you need to leave it and become your own person.
But your parents weren’t like the Fangs’…
Oh, my parents were awesome! With this book, I tried to create terrible parents, who took things to such an extreme they were ruining their children. While I relate to them in some ways, they’re probably the least fit people to have children.
Are your parents still alive, and if so, what’d they think of the book?
Both my parents are still alive—in fact, Dad is on the book tour with me. He rides with me whenever I do a book tour. They’re savvy enough to separate themselves from the characters in the story, and to recognize that this is a family that is similar to us in some ways and in other ways completely different. They really liked it—I think this is the first thing I’ve written where they really, totally gave their whole heart over to the story.
Dad and I drive in the car together and stay in the same motel rooms. He gets a kick out of going on these things more than I do—after every signing he pulls the bookstore manager aside and thanks them in such a sincere way that I feel like a Make-A-Wish kid and my dad has arranged all this without my knowledge.
Speaking from personal experience, I can say if you and your dad can take a trip together with that level of closeness and still be speaking at the end, you’re not only better off than the Fangs, but most parents and children, period.
I think it works because I am pretty much anxious 100 percent of the time, while my dad is one of the most calm, upbeat, optimistic people I’ve ever met. So in many ways, he’s like medication for me.
It’s very calming to be around him. Three people will show up for a reading and I feel like the biggest loser in the world, and my dad is wanting to take pictures of me with the three people. He’s happy all the time, and in a lot of ways, that keeps me from going crazy.
What type of research did you do for the book?
I think E.L. Doctorow said, “You do the least amount of research possible—enough to get away with it.” That’s what I try to do. Research is a black hole for me—I’ll keep going and going down the rabbit hole and never write.
I remembered things like Chris Burden, the performance artist, and the Fluxus movement, and I went back and did some cursory research to remind me of it. I did some research into music that I thought the Fangs would listen to that I would listen to, but I mostly stayed away from research because the Fangs are so absurd that I don’t think that doing too much research would be beneficial for creating that family. They need to be separate from the real world in some ways.
According to Kristin Buie, spokesperson for the Raleigh-based theater company, Shepherd sustained her injury on a staircase last Wednesday morning. She soldiered on through the rest of the day, but on Thursday afternoon, a medical exam revealed that she had sustained a tibial plateau fracture and severe ankle sprain.
The decision to replace her was made Friday afternoon, Buie said. Although there is an understudy for the role, NC Theatre hired Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, who was flown in from the New York area on Saturday. Donovan is a seasoned musical veteran who will be familiar to NC Theatre audiences for her turns in productions of The Music Man (Marian the librarian) and Funny Girl (Fanny Brice).
Hello, Dolly! will be performed as scheduled, from May 7—14 at Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium.
Two weeks ago, Zack Smith spoke with Cybill Shepherd for a planned story for the May 4 issue of the Independent Weekly. Smith's story follows. —David Fellerath
From her roles in such acclaimed 1970s films as The Last Picture Show, The Heartbreak Kid and Taxi Driver, to half of one of TV’s most beloved couples in the 1980s series Moonlighting, to her recent appearances on The L Word, Cybill Shepherd has never been afraid of reinvention, or speaking her mind. This week, Shepherd begins a run with North Carolina Theatre as the title character in the classic musical Hello Dolly at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. We spoke to Shepherd over the phone in Los Angeles to discuss her journey to the stage, memories of Taxi Driver, her relationship with director (and UNC School of the Arts professor) Peter Bogdanovich and more.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What made you want to do Hello, Dolly?
Cybill Shepherd: I’ve been a singer my whole life. I started formal training at 16, sang choir before that, and I’ve done albums and live shows. I always wanted to do a musical comedy, a really great one, and I’ve been offered a lot of things that I didn’t feel like I’d love to do, because it takes a lot of dedication on my part. You know, you can’t just walk in and do two weeks’ rehearsal—it takes several months. With Dolly, though, every song is just so wonderful.
It’s a wonderful step for me to get to play Dolly Gallagher Levi and to find my own Dolly—it’s been done by so many great people. I believe it’s a great show, and an uplifting show, and a funny show. I’m viewing it as a tryout—if I love it here, maybe I’ll do Dolly somewhere else as well.
It’s a classic character—what appealed to you most about Dolly?
It’s a story of a woman who hasn’t felt alive in years. There’s a beautiful monologue where Dolly talks about this. I think, being 61 myself, you do have things in your life where you have things happen that make you feel alive again. It’s about love, and no matter how old we are, love makes us young again. I can relate to that in my life too—I’ve been involved with someone since a year and a half ago.
So it feels very personal to me, this story, and she’s a survivor as well, an Irish girl married to a Jewish man. That was pretty shocking to people! And she was widowed, and if you look at the time frame when this occurs, 1890s, there was nothing a woman could do! She has to become a master of all trades to keep things together. I relate to that as an actor, because every time I play a different part, I’ve got to learn a different skill.
You just did a new pilot for ABC, My Freakin’ Family, and you’ve maintained a presence in different media ranging from film to TV to the theater in recent years. What’s been interesting about working in those different formats?
The L Word was a bit of a comeback for me; that got me a lot of new fans. I also did a one-woman show called Curvy Widow that I didn’t write, and that was an experience—I did it in Atlanta and in San Francisco, and I really loved doing it. So I want to do more theater. That’s been my dream—and part of that was doing a musical comedy.
On the new pilot, it’s a half-hour, and I’m attracted to half-hours, and more important than that, it’s a comedy. I was thrilled—this is a very funny pilot, and the cast is brilliant. I love ensembles—I started with ensembles, with The Last Picture Show.
…which just had its 40th anniversary, obviously—and Peter Bogdanovich is in North Carolina.
I know! He’s coming to see me! If I wanted to learn how to make a great film, I would find out where Peter Bogdanovich was teaching and sign up for his class. I can’t believe it’s an undergraduate class he’s teaching—he should be teaching a doctoral program.
I say a prayer every day for Peter, what he has contributed to my life, to the films he made and the films he exposed me to, and to the great, great friendship and great love, which will last forever. Every time I see him, he’s so entertaining.
Now You See Me asks to what lengths will a television network go in order to insure what it might call the “human continuity” in its latest smash reality TV series—a show focusing on people who are gravely, if not terminally, ill? Why would anyone watch the show in the first place? And under such circumstances, if a producer offered you a promising new cancer-fighting drug—and a shot at stardom—why might you really not want to sign that contract?
We spoke with Bell for an hour by phone last weekend.
INDEPENDENT: That oddly prescient ’80s TV news network drama Max Headroom was supposedly set “15 minutes into the future.” The world in Now You See Me has a similar sense to it. It’s not tangential to our time, but a logical extension of it.
NEAL BELL: I hope so. While I was writing it, I actually thought that maybe this premise—a reality show about dying people—was so far out there that it went beyond parody into ridiculousness.
But while I was writing it, a British reality TV star named Jade Goody, who’d been a big hit on several different Big Brothers because she was so apparently abrasive and obnoxious, finally ended up on one in India, where she was diagnosed—on camera—as having terminal cancer.
She quit the show, went back to England and basically sold the rights to her death to a television company, which filmed as much as they could of her final month or two. She got married—though she was barely able to walk down the aisle—to the father of her two children. It was a huge media event in England.
And I thought, well, (laughs) I guess I didn’t make it up. It’s actually happening.
As Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.”
I think that’s true. It goes beyond the “stranger than fiction” thing. I think cynicism is exactly the right word. You just cannot calculate the bottomless desire or appetite for the most invasive glimpses into people’s lives.
Black Poetry Theater performs "Letters to My Child" Sunday, Mar. 13 at 3 and 6 p.m. at Common Ground Theater.
I grew up in urban upstate New York. My mom was 13 when she had me. I was in an out of foster care. My siblings were tossed around to various family members. It was pretty much a fast-paced environment.
I was always that child who had a journal in my back pocket—and vocals. I was the skinny little girl who could sing her troubles away. I would think of an escape that would be so lucky, and then I'd act that out. Not in a harmful way: I expressed it in an artistic way.
When I was entering junior high school, I fell in love with theater, because there was a way for me to use my voice to hide behind all of the things I was facing.
There was this incredible boy in junior high school by the name of Saul Williams. He's a poet, and he was my very first boyfriend. Our poetry started out as love letters.
I always was the girl who sung, so I had the chance to sing the anthem at all the high school games.
He was the poet/rapper kid who was very quiet and very insecure about urban area.
He was the preacher's kid. I was the harlot woman’s child.
Can you imagine our performances? The magnitude of that? These two worlds we couldn’t really convey, so we had to use our pens, our voices and our actions. Instead of getting involved in the wrong kind of things, people and circumstances, we had outlets for what we saw and felt, for our emotions.
It’s a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon in Durham. As a group of artists filter into Duke University’s modest Branson Theater facility at the edge of its East Campus, I’m talking with Tony Hughes, artistic director of Very Normal Productions and founder of PERFORMANCE ART NIGHT, about the series he’s curated over the past three years, and its “10th anniversary”—the 10th collection of works—that will be presented over two nights this weekend at Common Ground Theater. (For a lineup of performances and info on an affiliated Saturday class in slapstick and clowning, go to the series’ web site.)
Hughes and regional actor/director Dana Marks are presenting their new work, Eden Is Dancing, on Friday night. She enters the conversation midway.
HUGHES: Let’s hope it is by Friday. (laughs)
How would you describe it?
The emphasis came from a couple of influences in the last year. One was the [Steven Tukel Mills] book, Next of Kin: My Conversation with Chimpanzees. It’s about how related we are to them, how some of their development mirrored some of our development, and how scientists are realizing that their consciousness is not extremely different from our consciousness.
I also took a trip to Italy, where I ended up seeing a lot of Renaissance art. I ended up seeing a lot of the same imagery by different masters. One image kept coming up in particular; I must have seen 20 to 30 versions by different people of “The Expulsion from Eden.”
These sort of rolled together into an idea: that human consciousness came into fruition at the moment when we were expelled from Eden. Before that we were more animal-like. But then comes this defining, first event—and, as a result, we have a past, present and future in relation to it. We then have the ability to manipulate the concepts of past, present and future.
In Genesis, the fall is associated with the characters eating from a tree of “knowledge of good and evil.” One wonders what knowledge or sentience was, at least for humans, before that acquisition.
I had this idea that consciousness just exploded on them at the moment they were expelled or ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After that, they begin to have the ability to manipulate symbols, manipulate words, and, ultimately, abstract ideologies and philosophy.
I was trying to think of modern analogies in which our consciousness is irreversibly altered in an immediate sense. I started thinking of car wrecks.
Grandin, who received an honorary doctorate from Duke last year, spoke with us by telephone recently.
“I talk a lot about visual thinking, and animal behavior, and trying to combining those things together, and how being a visual thinker helped me in my animal behavior work,” says Grandin.
“And it’s Duke’s Women’s Studies group, so I’ll talk about getting started in the 1970s in a man’s world, which was real, real difficult.”
Grandin’s work came into the spotlight last year when HBO aired a TV-movie, Temple Grandin, which went on to win seven Emmy awards, including one for Claire Danes for her portrayal of Grandin.
“Oh man, I’ve gotten so much busier!” says Grandin of the film’s success. “All I do now is travel, giving talks.”
Indeed, our conversation takes place during a layover between flights to different appearances. After appearing at Duke, she’ll hop a plane to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the American Meat Institute.
She describes herself as “sort of like Google for pictures,” and is impressed by how more defined the autism spectrum has become since she was growing up.
“Half of Silicon Valley has something you’d call Asperger’s—I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg has something like that,” Grandin says. “You’d almost have to have a touch of Asperger’s to be that good a programmer. Social circuits take up a pile of processor space in the brain, and then you don’t have the processor space to make stuff like Facebook.”
In some ways, she feels that the advancements in technology and social media have helped humans develop a more fractured type of visual thinking closer to animals, though in some ways this worries her.
“To create something like Google, people had to sit still for hundreds of hours to learn how to program,” Grandin says. “We’re getting a lot of people today texting all the time, fragmenting their attention. It’s ironic that the thing that they text on has to be made by someone who is not distracted and is looking at information in whole bits for long periods of time.”
Grandin says that while she stays focused on her work, she appreciates the effect that her story has on people. “I get students, young kids on the spectrum, telling me, ‘Your movie’s motivating me to study harder in school,’ or someone will e-mail me saying, ‘My kid’s an Eagle Scout now because of your book.’”
“That’s the sort of stuff that motivates me—it’s sort of like I’ve got a new job now.”
Grandin appears at the Baldwin Auditorium on Duke’s East Campus at 4:30 p.m.; the talk is free and open to the public, but the event is now full; tickets are no longer available.
Here, for example, is his explanation as to why he’s playing the NC Comedy Arts Festival at Cat’s Cradle:
“Well, about two years ago, I played Charlie Goodnight’s in Raleigh, and (festival creator) Zach Ward came up to me afterwards, and asked, ‘Would you like to play this festival?’ And I thought, ‘Boy, it’d be nice to play a slightly different market.’ Because Charlie Goodnight’s is amazing, but this festival is pretty far away, and it’s probably going to skew a tad younger, and it’s good to get the younger generation excited about me, because by the time I go back to Charlie Goodnight’s again they’ll all have families and they can afford me with their jobs working for the government, monitoring people’s thoughts or whatever we’ll be doing, I don’t know how technology is going. But then again, an asteroid might be heading toward Earth by 2036, so that takes the pressure off considerably.”
[The club formerly known as Charlie Goodnight's is now called simply "Goodnight's Comedy Club."—Editor]
Philips came to prominence in the 1980s, with his witty wordplay and bird-like voice and features granting him a distinct stage presence. He’s toned down his look—gone is the Prince Valiant haircut from his early years on stage—but there’s no mistaking the voice that uttered such classic one-liners as, “Some mornings it just doesn't seem worth it to gnaw through the leather straps.”
He often uses religion in his humor (a few years ago, one of his longer jokes was picked as the best religious joke of all time).
“For some reason, religious jokes seem as trivial as jokes about food or driving,” Philips says.
He says that religion is a topic that almost everyone in an audience can relate to. "Even if you don’t care about religion, your neighbor might, if he votes.”
Philips admits times have changed since he started doing stand-up.
“A few days ago, it was my birthday, and it was in the newspaper, and growing up I never would have guessed that a) my name would be in the newspaper, and b) that I might outlast those papers.”
Even in today’s age of MySpace, YouTube and Funny Or Die, Philips remains a staunch supporter of old-school stand-up comedy. Still, he’s adapted to new media (“My latest Facebook fan is a teenage girl studying drama, kind of like a Mexican taking Spanish”), but he doesn’t text and needed confirmation from this reporter to confirm that “LOL” stands for “laugh out loud.”
He prefers the communal feeling of a live show to a tiny screen on the Internet.
“I understand if you want to stay home and watch me on YouTube, but it’s like incest—you’re putting convenience over quality.”
Emo Philips plays Cat’s Cradle Friday, Feb.18 at 9 p.m. as part of the NC Comedy Arts Festival. He has been in town all week, though, and additional sightings are possible.
But in recent years, the once larger-than-life Goldthwait is keeping it small. He’s gone from the guy who once set The Tonight Show guest chair on fire to the acclaimed writer-director of the small-scale, ribald and pitch-black comedies Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad.
Still, his wild-man reputation persists. Not that Goldthwait—whose weekend gig at Goodnight’s Comedy Club continues through Sunday, Feb. 19, is completely against that perception by fans.
“I think I’m always fighting being a nostalgia act,” says Goldthwait on the phone from Los Angeles.
“I understand how people want to talk to me about my older material, and I hate it when some showbiz people don’t want to talk about their pasts. But you’ll see something about you posted (on YouTube) and think, ‘Wow, that’s all I am to this person?’ But it’s a perception that I perpetuated, so I could be frustrated by it, but it’d be a lot of wasted energy.”
Goldthwait sounds completely different on the phone than those only familiar with his acting and stand-up work would expect. He’s calm, laid-back and thoughtful when it comes to describing his life and career.
These days, he prefers to stay behind the scenes with his films, a career he eased into with a few years of directing Jimmy Kimmel Live.
“At this point in my life, I’m interested in working out things that I’m concerned about, or that eat up a lot of my gray matter,” Goldthwait says.
“Just simply to be famous is not fulfilling, so that’s why I’ve got to get stuff going with a little meat on it.”
His next film starts production in April, based on an original screenplay he calls “kind of like Badlands or Network, about the American coliseum, about how we’re all about throwing people under the bus.”
Last year, it was announced that he’d helm a film version of the Kinks album Schoolboys in Disgrace, though he says that project’s taking longer to come together, resulting in his going with the smaller original project in the meantime.
“I like keeping it smaller,” Goldthwait says of his films. “The Kinks musical I am very serious about—it’s going to cost more than the size and scope of the movies I usually make, and I keep working on it, but it’s going to take longer to get it going. And I like the freedom of doing a tiny movie.”
Though Goldthwait has announced his retirement from stand-up comedy a few times, he says he continues to draw inspiration from the people and places he sees on the road, and is looking forward to returning to Goodnight’s, a venue he’s played several times throughout his career.
Does he think the Goodnight's audience will be open to his new material?
“I just hope folks come out to the show and not expect the Grover voice,” he says.
Bobcat Goldthwait appears at Goodnight’s through Sunday.
Pierce, a Tony winner for 2007’s Curtains, first came to PlayMakers last year, when his longtime partner, UNC graduate Brian Hargrove (a long-time TV writer for such shows as Titus), was honored.
Since Frasier ended in 2004, Pierce has focused on the theater, headlining such productions as Monty Python’s Spamalot and more recently, David Hirson’s La Bête on Broadway. At this point in his career, he can afford to be choosy about his roles, taking on more eclectic projects at his leisure.
“To be able to choose what you want to do, and not have to worry about the economics of it, to take whatever’s offered, that’s a great luxury,” he says. “There’s also a great responsibility, I think, to yourself and your artistic life.”
Regional theater such as PlayMakers, Pierce says, “reminds me a lot of being in London—there, the audiences are constantly exposed to a wide range of plays. They’re not all good, but the audience starts to develop a wider idea of what a play is.
“That means the audience in the regions around the country can have more diverse tastes than audiences in the bigger cities, who get short bursts of shows that have been pre-selected, because we think they can make it through the gauntlet of fire that is commercial theater.”
Pierce bluntly answers “no” when asks if he’d like to do a TV series again, despite his respect for the medium.
“I don’t feel like I left anything undone doing Frasier. I loved that whole experience, it was fulfilling in every way, and after we filmed our last episode, I didn’t walk out of that soundstage thinking, ‘Oh, if only I’d had a chance to do something I didn’t get a chance to do with that fantastic company and that great writing.’ It would have to be something that really caught my eye and my ear about the writing of the character.
“The bottom line for me is the live audience. I love that connection, and it’s very difficult for me to give that up.”
Pierce’s upcoming work includes the independent film The Perfect Host and making his directorial debut on a stage production written by Hargrove.
We asked him if he had any advice for the production of Spamalot, scheduled to take place at DPAC in May. “I’m sure the actors know the material well already,” says Pierce, “but I can offer what Mike Nichols (the original director) told me—‘No matter how funny it gets, remember—it’s always very, very serious.’”
For more information on the PlayMakers Ball, including tickets and sponsorship, contact Lenore Field at 452-8417 or email@example.com, or visit www.playmakersrep.org.