THE BASICS: The second annual Buffalo Humanities was expanded this year from two to four days (September 23 -26 /2015) and nearly 30 events were concentrated in a ¼ mile square encompassing the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Burchfield Penney Art Center, SUNY Buffalo State, and the Buffalo History Museum. While many organizations were involved, it was primarily due to the efforts of the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute, Erik R. Seeman, Director. Some events were free, those that were not were very affordable. The “Festival proper” ran for most of Saturday, with talks, music, food, films, and dramatic performances. This is a review of just a few parts of the extensive festival.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: If you like attending the BABEL series, if you like lectures at Chautauqua, if you like the tent performances at the Elmwood Arts Festival, if you stay around after plays for “audience talk backs,” if you listen to NPR and watch PBS, if you enjoy exploring a concept from different points of view, then you will love (if they do it next year) The Buffalo Humanities Festival. Most of the listed events were indoors in an auditorium or a classroom and lasted about an hour which is fine, because your head will be filled with so many ideas, you will want time to “process.”
FRIDAY NIGHT: THE “HEADLINER” – JILL LAPORE
I attended only a fraction of the offerings, and while the event has been covered in other media, perhaps there is room for one more appreciation. What caught my eye initially was a postcard promoting a talk by Harvard Professor Jill Lapore, whose article last year in The New Yorker on “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” revealed the strong influence of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, on the creators of the comic character Wonder Woman. As a sustaining supporter of Planned Parenthood, that article got my attention. Around the time of that article, a friend posted on her Facebook page that her very prescient kindergarten-age daughter had asked why female super-hero costumes were so much skimpier than male super-hero costumes. The Mom’s response was “Can you say the word objectification?” I wanted to know more about all of this. If Wonder Woman was a symbol for feminism and female power, why was she presented in the revealing costume?
Lapore is a very engaging speaker and her Friday presentation was not at all pedantic. Through the effective use of historic photos and editorial cartoons she gave us an overview of her best-selling book, THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN. Wonder Woman was created in 1941 for DC Comics by a pop-psychologist (“think of Dr. Joyce Brothers” Lapore told us) named William Marston who was a feminist, having been radicalized from early experiences at Harvard. He wanted her look to combine a variety of elements from political cartoons promoting women’s suffrage (which often showed women in chains), planned parenthood’s ideas of women having control (Marston was in an open marriage with two women, one of whom was Sanger’s niece) and to be a counter to the somewhat tainted idea of a super man (remember Hitler’s ideas of the master race?) all combined with the image of the healthy, leggy pin-up “Vargas girls” of the 1940s. Marston was also the inventor of the lie detector (and when caught in Wonder Woman’s golden lasso one is compelled to tell the truth). I’m not sure that I got the answers I needed, but now I want to read the book. And I did hear that sexual power is power, and power is power after all, so perhaps that’s all there is to it.
SELECTED SATURDAY’S EVENTS:
On Saturday there were 18 events (too many choices!), with six each taking place at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. while in between and after were hour long activities – lunch at noon complete with a visit from four drag queens, then a tent cabaret with singer Katy Miner and keyboardist Michael Hake at 2 p.m., then a cash bar with music by Alison Pipitone at 4 p.m.
I was told that last year there were fewer events each hour, but that the day had gone on longer, and that hadn’t been satisfactory
The 1 p.m. choices included “Rebellious Women in Country music” and “The Black Male Body in Comics” along with three other options but my choice had been made days ago. “A Shakespearean Gender-Bender” was presented in the Burchfield-Penney Auditorium by Shakespeare in Delaware Park. After a somewhat scholarly (for a Saturday afternoon) introduction by Katie Mallinson, we watched the same scene from Shakespeare’s play TWELFTH NIGHT (one of the two presented this summer by SIDP). In the scene presented, “Cesario,” page to Duke Orsino, has been sent by the Duke to help him woo the extremely diffident noblewoman Olivia. “Cesario,” is in reality, the noblewoman Viola, who, recently shipwrecked, has adopted a male disguise to get on in a strange land. So, not only is Olivia dealing with another woman (Viola), that woman is also of equal social stature. And, they verbally spar. Boy, do they spar.
We first saw the scene as played by two women: Marie Hasselback-Costa as Lady Olivia and Mary-Beth Lacki as Cesario/Viola. Now, this summer, both these women played trouser roles in ROMEO AND JULIET and they were excellent and very believable. Hasselback-Costa was Benvolio (sidekick to the ill-fated Mercutio) and Lacki was Tybalt (the hotheaded young man who, through superior swordsmanship, kills Mercutio). Both of these women can be, shall we say, intimidating. In fact, Hasselback-Costa later said that people often use that word to describe her. Read on.
Following, we saw two men play the same scene: Chris Hatch as Lady Olivia and Jordan Fisher as Cesario/Viola. This summer Hatch was Duke Orsino and Fisher was Cesario/Viola, the role he reprised on Saturday. I mention all of this detail because, when we in the audience were asked for our reaction, I admit that I felt more tension, more “danger,” more powerful sparring when the men played the role. And I feel that part of that could have simply been that Fisher had tons more experience in that specific role and Hatch, while not playing Olivia per se, but rather Duke Orsino, at least was in the TWELFTH NIGHT production and would have absorbed a lot of stage direction just by being there in rehearsals and being backstage night after night.
So, it wasn’t really a fair comparison. But the “talk-back” was great.
And I learned three things. First off, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that, even though in that scene there is a noble lady and a page, in fact they are social equals, and that, at the end of the scene when Olivia “has the hots for” the page, (both actors used the fanning yourself motion to indicate that) it’s because in Olivia’s life, she is the highest ranking person in the house; everyone else is deferential to her. Suddenly there is this “boy” who gives as good as he gets. And that is what excites Olivia.
Second, the scene we saw twice can be considered the most important scene in the play. I didn’t know that.
Third, when asked about preparing to play another gender, the actors all agreed it’s not about learning superficial things like how to walk like a man or how to wear high heels like a woman, but that the most important part was the same as preparing for any role – asking what does the character want and how, based on the confines of the play and the character, are they going to get it.
The lunch before was wonderful, on picnic tables under a tent on the Buff State Quad, as was the coffee break, listening to Katy Miner sing and Michael Hake play. Trust me, I got my $15 of value, and the day wasn’t over.
At 3 p.m. I went to see Anthony Chase (disclosure: my co-host on “Theater Talk on WBFO”) interview the star of many B.U.A. (whose mission is to present plays which inform LGBTQ issues) productions. After an introduction/audience quiz by Chase identifying head shots of 1940s-1970s Hollywood femmes fatales (Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney, for example) Jimmy Janowski came out looking like someone you might see at family gatherings. It’s true, one of the most glam and flamboyant drag actors ever looks like … well….nobody in particular.
And that led into a great story of growing up, not “gay” but just feeling different. And then going to New York City in the 1970s, working a so-so job in a bookstore, but wanting to be part of the glamorous night club scene, in particular, the most famous club of the 1970s, “Studio 54.” And what Janowski and his friends discovered was, if they showed up as themselves, they didn’t get in to the selective club. But if they showed up even slightly in drag (still wearing men’s pants and shoes, and only minimally adding a boa, or a scarf, or a tiara, and some make-up) they got in. And that’s how it all began for Jimmy Janowski.
I’m not sure if Janowski was in the room during the Shakespeare discussion, but it was an “aha” moment when he said, after being asked how he studies a character, “I ask what does this character need, what do they want, what do they desire?” Almost word for word what I had heard two hours before. So, in the end, the message I heard was that generally accepted gender differences (clothing, makeup, passive or aggressive behavior, how you use your arms) aren’t that important to an actor. What is important is to convey human needs and wants, which are common to us all.
If there is a Humanities Festival next year, sign me up!
Photo: At the Buffalo Humanities Festival (L to R) Mary Hasselback-Costa, Mary Beth Lacki, Jordan Fisher, Chris Hatch discuss gender roles in Shakespeare. (Katie Mallinson at the podium.) The animated Jimmy Janowski (R) interviewed by Anthony Chase.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!