Community Palette

Watching Michael Kahn Direct is a Great Experience

January 27, 2015

Watching Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC), direct a play is a wonderful experience. Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending an open rehearsal for his upcoming play Metromaniacs. He has clearly earned all his awards and that statue of him at the Harman Theatre.

It is adapted and translated from La Métromanie by Alexis Piron. The advertising from the STC says, “Continuing the successful partnership between Michael Kahn and the award-winning playwright of Venus in Fur David Ives, STC presents the third play in Ives’s series of rediscovered French comedy masterpieces, following The Heir Apparent (2011) and The Liar (2010). A world-premiere translation and adaptation, The Metromaniacs once again applies Ives’s brilliant sense of comedic timing to a lost classic.” Judging from the audience response at the rehearsal, which was non-stop out loud laughter, I can’t wait to see the play in final form when it opens.

Amelia Pedlow as Lucille in The Metromaniacs (Photo by: Scott Suchman. ) Amelia Pedlow as Lucille in The Metromaniacs

Michael sits imperiously half-way up the theatre from the stage and has the actors run through the play, stopping them every so often with suggestions. It could be as simple as exit stage left front instead of through a doorway or move right or left because it makes it easier for another actor to get on stage in a timely way. Or he suggests a different way to say a line or where the actor should be on stage at the end of his lines. He has this wonderful way about him and the actors all seem to respond knowing when Michael suggests something it is the right way to do it.

In one scene Lisette, played by Dina Thomas, has to drag Modor, played by Michael Goldstrom, off the stage. She is trying to figure out how to do it gracefully while wearing an enormous dress and Kahn is telling her she needs to get him off the stage somehow. He agrees the way he first envisioned it won’t work. He asks the actors for their ideas and Goldstrom comes up with one that has the audience in stitches. After a few takes Kahn says, ‘Ok guess we keep that in”.  I think every audience will be in stiches when they see it.

Another scene has Lisette (Dina), jumping into the arms of Dorante, played by Anthony Roach. They are practicing it on the side while another scene is being dissected by Kahn, so Anthony can catch her and not lose his balance and look suave at the same time.

Rehearsals aren’t the final play but judging from what I saw (the set and costumes are magnificent) and heard, no one who enjoys theater will want to miss Metromaniacs. Each member of the cast was great and it’s good to see Christian Conn, who plays Damis, back at the STC.

Kahn is a brilliant director and Ives is a brilliant writer, together they have proven unbeatable. Get your tickets today for Metromaniacs at STC.


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'Talking Transition DC Town Meeting': A Waste of Money

January 20, 2015

Last Saturday a number of groups I respect including the National Institute for Civil Discourse, DC Vote, DC Working Families, and the Urban Institute got together and using foundation funding hosted a meeting  ‘Talking Transition DC Town Meeting’. The all-day event at the Convention Center on Martin Luther King weekend only attracted about 250 people and they should be give kudo’s for participating.

Since the title of the event clearly suggested some link to the Mayoral transition many assumed it would be coordinated with the successful public forums held by the Bowser transition team where over 1,000 people came to share their ideas and suggest things the new Mayor could do. In addition the Bowser transition team held meetings with groups covering eight critical areas including education, economic development, and the creative ARTS. Those discussions included soliciting suggestions for setting the mayor’s agenda and moving it forward. They included ideas on developing affordable housing, creating more effective job training, continuing education reform and even details on how to expand and make more meaningful the summer jobs program. Muriel Bowser’s transition was the most open and transparent the District has seen.

The groups who planned this ‘Talking Transition’ meeting had to know only two weeks into the new administration the final transition report wasn’t going to be out. They also knew input from the community had been requested and heard. The transition report will clarify the Mayor’s agenda for the first 100 days and the first year.

The type of community meetings this emulated have been successfully sponsored in the past by Mayor Anthony Williams and Mayor Vincent Gray with close to 2,000 people in attendance. At those the Mayor, cabinet officers, and representatives from all city agencies were there to listen and many had individual conversations on the direction people wanted to see the District go.

This event had no real coordination with the Mayor’s office. I was told she had been invited but it should have been anticipated requests for her time over the MLK weekend would be numerous. The timing of this meeting with the new administration only two weeks old and following an open transition process made no sense.

One of the coordinators told to me they had seen this done in New York at the start of the de Blasio administration but they at least coordinated and had de Blasio there. But New York is a different place. New York City has 56 community boards representative of neighborhoods across the city. They each have about 50 members appointed by Councilmembers and the Borough Presidents. Mayoral transitions in New York, a city of eight million, are very different from a transition in D.C., with our population of 650,000.

Having attended for about an hour and read the Discussion Guide handed to each attendee and considering the sparse attendance and no representation from the new administration it appears that whatever was spent on this meeting was a waste of money.

It would be hoped that these sponsors will coordinate with the Mayor’s office and possibly hold a much more comprehensive meeting a year from now. At that time there could be a legitimate review of the Administration’s first year and discussion over the success or failure of the agenda and of the direction the city is moving in.  That could be done in a citywide meeting or forums in each Ward of the City. The strength of the Bowser campaign and hopefully the administration is the recognition that people across the District don’t all have the same needs or expectations of their government. A successful agenda will have to meet everyone’s needs and still manage to collectively move the District forward.


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Death of a Liberal Icon

January 11, 2015

Mario Cuomo will be remembered as the liberal lion of the ‘80s and ‘90s. His speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, “A Tale of Two Cities,” cemented that legacy. He fought for the common man. Interestingly, he came to prominence in New York fighting for people in Queens and in his losing race to Ed Koch for mayor in 1977 was seen by many as the more conservative candidate. I first met Cuomo and his then teenage son Andrew during that campaign. In my only mention on the front page, above-the-fold in the New York Times, a Sept. 17, 1977 column by Fred Ferretti said, “It was learned that Ms. Abzug’s campaign staff had moved virtually en masse to the Cuomo headquarters on Times Square. Those who moved included Peter Rosenstein, Mrs. Abzug’s Deputy Campaign Manager, now Cuomo’s director of field operations … and other members of the Abzug inner circle Maggie Peyton, Harold Holzer and Kenneth Sunshine.” That happened immediately after Bella lost her primary race for mayor and the run-off was between Cuomo and Koch. It happened before Bella officially endorsed Cuomo and she wasn’t happy.

Then came the dance when she did endorse over who would get to the press conference first, Bella or Mario. The endorsement nearly fell apart over that. Those of us moving to the Cuomo team were to work in two losing elections in quick succession. That was the last time my name ever got mentioned above that of my good friend Harold Holzer, the distinguished Lincoln scholar, who was to become a confidant of Cuomo, or Kenneth Sunshine who was to form a world-renowned public relations firm and is still a confidant of politicians, including current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo ran and lost in 1974 for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Howard Samuels. When he lost the mayor’s race, his mother Immaculata Cuomo was widely reported as saying “Mario don’t you ever win nothin?” But he did go on to win and served three terms as governor of New York and twice was the leading Democrat being asked to run for president. Each time he decided at the last minute not to run, which earned him the title “Hamlet on the Hudson.” Cuomo is known for the saying “Politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose” — something New York’s current mayor is now learning.

Two things remembered from that 1977 campaign are that Cuomo’s stand against the death penalty hurt him and those placards that appeared in the conservative areas of the city saying: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo” in reference to rumors about Koch’s sexuality. Cuomo denied responsibility for them but it was always apparent someone associated with the campaign was responsible. Cuomo himself moved beyond that and with changing circumstances it was his stand against the death penalty that helped him beat Koch for governor in 1982. His son Andrew is now the governor and it was with his strong support that marriage equality became law in New York State. In politics, nothing stays the same and people change.

It would be very difficult today in most districts across the nation for a politician to stand on the progressive platform that Mario Cuomo enunciated and win. I was reminded in a Facebook post from my friend Joel Lawson of a great quote from a speech Cuomo gave in 1984 at the University of Notre Dame titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” in which he said, “I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant, or non-believer, or as anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us. This freedom is the fundamental strength of our unique experiment in government. The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.”

It seems the era in which one could say those things and win is past. Today we have politicians who campaign on having their religious beliefs enshrined in law and who quote the Bible when trying to stop marriage equality. There is a culture of conveniently forgetting how our Founding Fathers fought to ensure the separation of church and state. I would like to think that sooner rather than later our nation will one day advance to a state in which a Mario Cuomo could be elected president.

First printed in the Washington Blade


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