INDY WEEK: It’s only been a little over a year and a half since bin Laden’s death. How soon after the event did you start working on this book? What were some of the challenges in making sure it was something that was ready to be published?
Mark Bowden: It all started, technically, the day after bin Laden was killed. I was out in LA at the time, and a movie producer asked me if I would consider researching and writing a script. I emailed Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, and asked me if he would consider putting me on the list of the thousands of journalists who wanted to interview the President about this event.
Much to my surprise, Jay emailed me right back and said he thought I was an ideal person to do a story like that! He didn’t know I was just writing a script, but my friend the producer wound up deciding not to pursue the project, so I wound up with potential access with no project. I called up my publisher and pitched it to him, and he said yes.
I told him I did not want to be the first—that I wanted to research this until I felt I was ready to write, and he accepted it on that basis. So I signed a contract and got to work!
How much access did you wind up having?
Ultimately, I did sit down with President Obama for an interview in the Oval Office that lasted an hour and a half. I interviewed most of the key people on the White House staff; I interviewed extensively at the Pentagon and at the CIA, and at the Joint Special Operations Command, and in and around the country with sources of my own who were able to help me understand various aspects of the technology and strategy that’s been involved in the last 10 years, and I had the help of my son and my cousin David, who worked on a documentary film for the Discovery Channel based on my work, and they did reporting and interviewed people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With all that, I had help, and I had opportunity.
As you were doing research for this, how did your perception of the situation evolve, in terms of your understanding of it?
Well, I think like everyone else, I was fixated on the raid itself. But as I got more into the story, I realized this was more of a 10-year-long story, for which the raid was only the last few hours. And I was only vaguely aware of the evolution of what I call the “targeting engine” that the CIA and Special Operations and NSA and various counterterrorism intelligence agencies put together.
So that was all new to me, at least in the detail that I came to understand it, and of course at that time I had no knowledge at all of how the CIA found bin Laden, which to me is probably the single most remarkable aspect of the story.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception that the public’s had about the events leading to bin Laden’s killing?
Well, I do think that most people don’t realize, or didn’t realize, that finding bin Laden was not a sudden stroke of luck. It was a very long and painstaking process that developed the information that led to this fellow Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Really, the most remarkable piece of this was finding him, not knowing that he would ultimately lead them to bin Laden, but knowing there was a good chance that might happen, and then that subsequently paying off.
I think the most surprising thing for most people is that this was not something that happened suddenly; it was a very gradual, very determined intelligence effort that found bin Laden in the compound.
That touches on one thing the book makes very apparent—that intelligence is more than what people see in thrillers, it’s about a gradual compilation and advancement of leads. What was one of the greatest challenges in presenting that information in a way that stays true to the process and conveys its impact without sensationalizing it?
Well, I think that’s obviously a major challenge when you’re constructing a narrative. But I believe that if you penetrate to the core of a story, and you understand the significance of each turning point, it becomes inherently interesting.
I think where writers get lost is when they get distracted by a lot of extraneous, but curious or interesting detail. But the key to me was focusing in on exactly what were the pieces that had to be fit together, and where did those pieces came from. If you narrow it down like that, I think it becomes compelling—if you put together the story in a very clear and I think decisive way, and I think that helps maintain the reader’s interest.
In the book, you often have passages where you go inside the head of Barack Obama and others. When you’re going through your research and interviews and translating them into prose, what are the biggest challenges with sequences like that?
What I try to avoid doing is using a lot of the conventional tools of attribution, which tend to slow down the narrative. I’m content as a writer, if President Obama tells me, “This is what I was thinking, and this is what was happening,” if I can simply relate that fact.
What I’ve done traditionally in my books is have detailed source notes at the end, if anyone wants to check the attribution of the quotes throughout the novel. In this case, that was virtually impossible, because most of the key people involved, other than President Obama, were willing to talk to me, but did not want to have specific things attributed to them, because I was dealing with people who were in high office and positions of responsibility, and they’re just concerned about putting too fine a point on their thought process.
There is a bit more of a need here than in my other books for the reader to simply trust what I’m telling them is through my reporting, rather than something I’m making up.
"You’re in a room by yourself, and you know that people see the strip, but the reality to the people reading it is very different from your reality — it’s like being a stand-up comedian who can’t see the audience. Walking into a bookstore and doing a signing is like going from night to day — you go from being a hermit to the center of attention in a large crowd."
Pearls has been a mainstay of newspapers for more than a decade, offering trenchant commentary on human foibles through its large cast of talking animals ranging from the naive Pig to the idiotic alligator Larry to the eternally sleazy Rat, Pastis' favorite. "I’ve always liked writing for Rat," Pastis says. "He’s the voice that’s closest to mine. If I had my way, there would be a lot more Rat, and the strip would be a lot less popular."
However, he remains optimistic about the longevity of newspaper comics. "While new papers are not coming around, I’m still in 700 newspapers, and I’m still making a good living," Pastis says. "Syndicated content is cheap content — they don’t have to pay employees to produce it.
"Sometimes I think the obituary for syndicated comic strip guys has been written prematurely — it’s almost impossible to break in, but for those who have, the readership is still there. Sometimes I want to remind people that I’m doing OK! Most towns still have a newspaper, and at the end of the day, you still have to have local news. Even Yahoo and Google rely, by and large, on content that originally comes from local newspapers. It might take different forms, but local newspapers will survive, and I feel comics will be part of that.
He's also impressed by the diverse styles and content of online comic strips, most of which feature deeper subject matter and more R-rated language than found in a daily newspaper. "The fact that strips like that can go online and build their own audience is amazing. I love to see that — it keeps things going. Just because you can’t get syndicated in newspapers doesn't mean the comic strip has to go away, and those guys are proving that."
Pastis says he loves meeting his fans in person, though encountering someone he's never met before who can quote the strip back to him can be like "a kid of yours has gone off and made friends you don’t know."
He's had some oddball encounters: "People have taken me aside to say their brother is in the CIA and is watching us. There’s always someone who hands me a CD of their cousin’s band, as though they think I’m in the music industry. People will put hats on my head with a company’s logo and take a picture before I can take it off, to make it look like I’m endorsing the company. I had a mother insist I take her and her daughter to a photo booth and take a picture with her and her daughter, so I had the uncomfortable experience of being a stranger in a photo booth.
"Sadly, I haven't been able to get any strips out of these stories."
Stephan Pastis appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7:30 p.m. Monday for a reading and signing of the new collection Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out: A (Freaky) Pearls Before Swine Treasury. This is a signing line ticket event, with tickets available for each copy purchased; Pastis will also draw a character in each purchased book. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 919-828-1588.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: DRALION
* * * stars
Through Aug. 19
Cirque du Soleil is a global juggernaut, but it's still a surprisingly youthful institution. In contrast to, say, those 19th-century animal drivers Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, Cirque is a babe. Officially dating to 1984, the Montreal-based troupe exploded in the 1990s. In the middle of that decade, the troupe developed an Eastern-themed show called Dralion. The show focused on Chinese acrobatics and became a huge hit, running for about 13 years.
In 2010, the show was revived for arena tours, and that's what audiences see this week at PNC Arena. We caught the show Wednesday night at Raleigh's PNC Arena. We can report that the show is filled with dancers, singers, tumblers, trampoliners, aerialists and an impossibly ripped guy who does this thing with a "crossed wheel" routine. The latter comes early in the show, as Jonathan Morin tumbles onto the stage in his self-invented device of two steel circles, intersecting in the shape of an egg. Morin does a variety of spins, cartwheels and flips with the device. It's amazing, inventive stuff, the sort of thing people come to expect of Cirque du Soleil. However, the routine goes on for a couple minutes too long—and it's not the first time in the evening that we have that feeling.
You wouldn't know from watching the show, but Morin is playing a character called Kala, who is described thusly on the Cirque website: "Kala is the heart of the wheel that represents time and the infinite cycle. He is the internal propulsion of the wheel that makes time evolve. It is the ongoing circle of life."
There's a lot of this "ongoing circle of life" stuff in this production. A group of dancers and singers establish what seems to be a narrative framework, although we can't understand the invented language the trio of singers sing ("an invented language to which only Cirque du Soleil holds the key. Their mysterious accents echo down through time").
Nor do we know exactly what is meant by the character called The Little Buddha, who steps forward at the beginning of the show (after the clowns have warmed up the crowd) and meaningfully brandishes an oversized sand hourglass. Our lives are finite, I suppose. Time is running out in this circle of life. For those interested, the website helpfully tells us that the "Little Buddha is the chosen child. Although it possesses special powers that will allow it to eventually become an Âme-Force, it dreams of being just a regular child."
What's an Âme-Force? "L'Âme-Force symbolises ultimate harmony between the four elements."
OK, it's best not to peer too deeply into the story of Dralion, when it's really just a mostly solid evening of human tricks and stunts, topped off with some gorgeous, death-defying aerial dances over center ring, and a thrilling wall trampoline routine at the rear of the stage (the Wall Street Journal recently reported that many ex-Olympians, especially gymnasts, divers and synchronized swimmers, find work with Cirque du Soleil.)
It’s hard enough being one character on stage in a musical.
In Hot Summer Nights / Theater Raleigh’s lively production of AVENUE Q, Heather Maggs, Adam Poole and Erik and Annie Floor play ten.
They’re the heroic puppeteers animating, speaking and singing the roles of the self-described “people of fur” (and fuzz) who occupy this slightly scuzzy neighborhood well beyond the city’s high-rent district. And since their characters weave in and out of the various scenes—and some of the puppets require two of the four actors to animate—the logistics and quick-changes are pretty intense at times.
So credit them—and director Richard Roland—that you couldn’t tell by looking on the opening night. But after a performance that was never less than smooth and assured in Fletcher Opera House, why did I still leave this show feeling somewhat bemused?
As many readers already know, the titled tract of real estate in this comic musical is something of an urban staging ground, a pre-professional purgatory for a group of relatively disaffected Generation Y’ers like central character Princeton (Erik Floor), recently out of college and now facing lives in the world as adults.
None of them are all that ready. Princeton has a grubstake from his parents that he’s burning through on beer, but zilch for employment prospects with a B.A. in English. Lucy Monster (Annie Floor) is a kindergarten teaching assistant with no romantic prospects; she dreams of having her own “Monsterssori School,” but is making no headway toward it. Rod (Erik Floor) is a type-A (and robin’s egg-blue) Republican banker who secretly wants his slacker roomie and long-time friend, Nicky (Poole)—but he’ll never, ever come out of the closet to pursue him. Meanwhile, Trekkie Monster (Poole) stays holed up in his apartment, addicted to Internet porn.
Just ask Rebus Works owner Shonna Greenwell. Today, the men of local wrestling outfit GOUGE Wrestling will be smashing and bashing outside her arts and crafts gallery, entertaining spectators as they take part in another one of Rebus Works’s Food Truck Rodeo.
So, just how did an art gallery owner hook up with a bunch of tights-wearing bruisers? Well, for starters, she lived next to one for years.
“Count Grog was my neighbor,” says Greenwell, referring to the wrestling manager and GOUGE commissioner. She got invited to one of their shows back when they were performing over at the Berkeley Café. Greenwell, who was dabbling in photography at the time, found them to be the perfect photo subjects.
“These guys, or men and women, would completely go into this other ego or other personality, and it was always your classic, like, good vs. evil,” she says. “And they would get the crowd riled up, and you could get all your frustrations and everything out. You could yell whatever you want and basically cheer for whoever you wanted as well.”
Greenwell got the GOUGE crew to perform outside Rebus Works for one paid event, but it turned to be, in Greenwell’s words, a “borderline disaster.” She forgot that because Rebus Works is located below the Boylan Street Bridge, passersby could watch the action from the bridge and not pay a dime.
This afternoon, the company sent an email to members of the area theater community confirming that the company had ceased operations, effective immediately: "Following the unanimous adoption of a resolution by REP's Board of Directors, the company has filed for bankruptcy." The email was signed by C. Glen Matthews, the company's artistic director.
According to documents filed yesterday in the United States Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of North Carolina, REP has $224,507.77 in unsecured debts.
The company has no real property, but its personal assets, including lighting equipment, costumes and props, were valued at $9,932.14.
According to a profit and loss statement for April 2012, REP's monthly expenses included $4,070 in rent and $3,523.65 in office and administrative expenses.
For the first four months of 2012, the company reported revenue of $31,734.78, with nearly 80 percent coming from grants and donations.
The two largest debts are owed to figures associated with the company's new performance space at 213 Fayetteville St., which opened in the summer of 2009.
The largest creditor is Alphin Design Build, the contractor hired to renovate the theater space, which is owed $110,000. The second-largest debt, $60,000, is owed to Jean Pauwels, the owner of the building. Raleigh Ensemble Players does not have equity in the building.
Also listed among more than 20 creditors is Vincent Whitehurst Architect, who is owed $2,489, according to the documents.
Whitehurst and Will Alphin are owners of Foundation, a popular bar located in the basement of 213 Fayetteville St. Whitehurst designed the Raleigh Ensemble Players space and Alphin served as the contractor. Pauwels, the building's owner, operates a business in the same building, a countertop materials supplier called Pyrolave.
Gary Williams, the company's managing director, is owed $10,000 for unpaid wages.
REP, the Triangle's oldest independent theater company, had performed in Artspace, located on East Davie Street, for 20 years prior to its move to Fayetteville Street. In 2011, it was recognized by the Independent Weekly with an Indie Arts award.
In a 2009 article in the Independent Weekly, company artistic director C. Glen Matthews cited a desire for the greater visibility that a permanent downtown home would bring them.
Pauwels, for his part, was looking for a tenant for the four-story building he was renovating.
"I wanted something I would enjoy having around, something more unusual, more fun than a clothing store or fast food," Pauwels told the Indy in 2009. "Some artistic activity in the building would be good for Fayetteville Street, good for everyone. It would make downtown more lively."
But in the same article, the company acknowledged difficulties in paying its contractor.
At the end of March, $100,000 in debt to its contractor, company management asked the builder to stop further work. "We didn't want to get in over our heads more than we already were," said Williams.
Calls to Alphin, Williams and REP board members Betsy Henderson and Don Davis were not immediately returned.
On this night, Redress Raleigh took over the museum for its fourth annual Eco-Fashion Show, where eco-friendly designers are given the opportunity to show off the fruits of their labor. And after previously doing the show at such spots as Flanders Gallery and Edenton Street United Methodist Church, the people behind Redress thought the CAM Raleigh would be a perfect venue.
“At CAM, we feel like it fits with our aesthetic as well,” says Eco-Fashion Show co-producer Beth Stewart, “because it’s a beautiful place but it’s a renovated space. So, this used to be a different type of building and they’re re-using it.”
Eleven designers were on the bill, many of them local, culled from applications that were sent through the Redress Raleigh website. These designers also appreciated Redress’s stylishly green mission.
“I just really loved the concept of this particular show,” says Melissa Lowery, the designer behind SSD Jewelry, “because they incorporate recycled and upcycled materials, found materials, and I use a lot of that in my work.”
Started in 2008, Redress Raleigh has specialized in proving to Raleigh and other Triangle residents that eco-friendly fashion can be washable, wearable and accessible. They also put on shows to benefit other organizations. This year’s charity is ABAN (A Ban Against Neglect), which produces upcycled bags, wallets and other products using the discarded plastic bags that litter of the streets of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.
Redress has also been known to put on other events apart from the fashion show. In March, they had a benefit show at Kings Barcade, featuring such acts as Kooley High’s Charlie Smarts and hip-hop band The Balance, to raise money to put the fashion show together.
“We do like to do some networking and fun events related to the eco-fashion show,” says Stewart. “But we mainly try to do more educational events than anything else. And the eco-fashion show is our main thing.”
The show had quite an eclectic collection of designers on hand. Leopold Designs had various female models saunter down the catwalk in hand-dyed silk, while the sophisticated Kendal Leonard and the vintage Rocket Betty both had their own ideas of what should pass for bridal wear.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of the evening was the diverse selection of models that were pouting and strutting for their respective designers. JulieApple Handbags, the first designer of the evening, had women (and a few little girls) model the trendy bags. SSD Jewelry had both men and women get on the runway. JBelle Designs and Leopold Designs features many middle-aged models for their sections.
There were young models who appeared to take their modeling careers thing quite seriously. But there were others, like Raleigh-based secretary/receptionist Cortney Rice, who was doing it on a lark.
“I think to go into the professional world, you gotta start really early now,” says Rice, who has done fashion charity shows at such Raleigh nightspots as Mirage and Solas. “I think they get you at 16, 17 – start you out early. So, I’m kind of past my prime. I’m 25, so I’m doing it for fun now.”
As for 16-year-old Raleigh model Ashton Edens, ol’ girl is in it for the long haul.
“It was just for the fun at first,” says Edens. “And, now, I’m starting to get into it and auditioning for a lot of stuff.”
She finds walking down the runway at a Redress show to be a step up from previous shows she’s done. “It’s a lot cleaner, I guess. It’s more refreshing, you could say. It’s not as clumped and it’s not as dark.”
“I was surprised because, a lot of times, it’s hit-or-miss in terms of kind of the skill level of designers,” says D.C.-bred stylist Stephanie Ford, who relocated to Raleigh from Paris. “But I was really surprised and impressed with a lot of the different designers.
The only minus she had was the ticket price.
“I think $50 is kind of high, on the high end, for a ticket price. I mean, up to $35 is kind of reasonable.”
In the end, the environmentally conscious fashionistas of Redress Raleigh did what they sought out to do. To paraphrase Project Runway’s dapper-ass Tim Gunn, they made it work.
Says Stewart: “Really, the main three things [for us] are to help raise money for charities, to help expose local artists who like to incorporate recycling and up-cycling materials and to help eco-conscious practices with their businesses. So, that’s really cool.”
Catherine, the bright, bewildered daughter of a deceased mathematical genius, isn’t the only one with something to prove in this current production of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. A new director at the helm of a new theater group is having to present a few bona fides as well.
This production marks the maiden voyage for director Jason Sharp’s company, Exit Through Eden. Sharp has achieved notice in a series of supporting roles in shows including Violet at Hot Summer Nights and Raleigh Ensemble Players’ Distracted, and this recombinant production largely relies on colleagues he’s worked with on stage in recent years.
For the most part, that’s a pretty good move. Betsy Henderson, a distinguished mid-career Raleigh actor, convinces here as the edgy, aching and alienated Catherine. An equally accomplished Ryan Brock ingratiates here as Hal, an unapologetic math geek and possible romantic interest. And it should shock no one that Page Purgar’s supporting work is solid as Catherine’s disbelieving older sister, Claire.
But at first Eric Hale appears to be acting more for the camera than the stage, in what initially translated into an almost deadpan, is-he-even-acting take on Robert, Catherine’s prickly father. Things improved considerably during both characters’ rewarding, dramatic argument at the start of the second act, but Hale’s later negotiation of Robert’s reversals leaves me still with questions about his range.
In such nacent independent companies, a skeleton crew is par for the course. In this show, director Sharp’s set design conveys the grungy backyard of an aging Chicago house. His lighting design, however, left us squinting at a noticeably dimmer backdoor area where several key scenes take place.
But if Sharp largely relied on the comforts of the known in casting this production, I should caution him against the same when it comes to script selection. This production marks the fifth time PROOF has been produced in the region in the past decade. For that reason alone I hesitated before committing to see the show—and I imagine some portion of this company’s potential audience did so as well.
The same point should be considered—carefully—by all artistic directors in the region now planning their fall season. Twelfth Night’s been done. Ditto for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And, in this credible opening bid by Exit Through Eden, so has Proof.
Artists are a resourceful lot. In their hands, common materials become artifacts charged with new significance. Often this transformation is powered by an artist’s imagination or vision of metaphorical possibility. Other times it comes from sheer necessity—one uses what is at hand, almost regardless of the material itself.
Western artists typically use found or discarded materials to revel in their materiality or to implicate the wasteful systems and habits that caused the materials to be discarded. There’s a whole disorganized era of “recycle/reuse” art. But this term is a luxury of the First World, a place where an infinite amount of stuff is made infinitely available, while dropping a plastic water bottle into a bin is still held as some kind of noble act.
The title of this exhibition is apt. Anatsui isn’t recycling stuff into other stuff. He’s taking whatever materials are available to him to carry the content that he wants to express. Themes of traditions and folktales, protest against violence, the strength of community, and, most of all, the optimism inherent in the communicative act, all persist throughout each decade of his career and in each medium he chooses. And he encodes meaning most frequently in a writerly way.
There’s a certain contradiction when a production celebrates the 25th anniversary of a world-wide musical theater phenomenon by completely discarding the original’s landmark production concept—and then cutting, according to reports, somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes from the show. That, however, is the outcome with the 25th Anniversary Tour of LES MISERABLES which stops at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium this week.
The odd result is a historical production (in more than one sense of the term) that seems entirely focused on the new instead. In addition to new orchestrations and new costumes, an entirely new set design, abetted by a new stage technology, has mandated equally new blocking as well.
Apparently producers Cameron Mackintosh and NETworks Presentations have aimed here for a LES MIS for a new generation. At least, let’s hope so: Those who remember the superlative strengths of the original (whose Raleigh performance we reviewed in Nov. 1997) are unlikely to be convinced that this brisk—or, actually, brusque—version is an improvement.
It’s amazing to consider how much a single element of technical design can influence an entire production. But then, the original version of LES MIS was amazing by almost any measure. Directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn’s brilliant use of scenic designer John Napier’s stage-length turntable repeatedly swept us along with the flow of history. It nimbly threaded us through the veritable urban mazes that the central character, the condemned Jean Valjean, negotiated to elude his nemesis, the implacable Inspector Javert.
Cinematically, that rotating set disclosed the horrors of warfare when it displayed one side of the barricade where the student revolutionaries in the Paris Uprising of 1839 made their last doomed stand—before turning, inexorably, to reveal all that had been laid to waste beyond it. In the midst of these, a number of other scenes shifted, quite literally, from one character’s point of view to another’s. In instance after instance, the show's original design added significant kinetic dimensions to the story.