Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Red Sox - Yanks: It Doesn't Get Any Worse Than This!


Hey, at least the Phillies are maing a move...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who Watches the Watchers?

...or, rather, who reports on the reporters?

It's soap box time, boys and girls. Buckle up, strap it on, and grab some duct tape.

Yesterday showed us a pair of perfect examples of why the news media, particularly the alphabet broadcast and cable news networks have long since passed being reliable sources of unbiased--or even particularly well-researched--information.

Example One:

A woman short-circuited in an airplane yesterday, causing a national terrorism scare. Or rather, she didn't cause a terrorism scare so much as the television news media did. Early reports were that she was carrying a screwdriver, a jar of petroleum jelly, and notes from al-Qaeda in English and Arabic. F-15s were scrambled to escort the plane off course to Boston's Logan Airport, and I'm sure they were prepared to blow it up if necessary. This is some pretty scary stuff, right? Hearing that right now, I would assume that the petroleum jelly was explosive and that the screwdriver was sharpened into a shiv of some kind. And that is, indeed, exactly what I assumed.

Unfortunately for the media, these reports turned out to be false. I say "unfortunately" because the actual details were far too mundane to make for good ratings, especially when News Story #2 broke later the same day (more on that travesty below). It was a 59-year-old woman from Vermont who had a serious attack of claustrophobia, was behaving erratically, carried a very suspicious handbag and can of soda to the bathroom, and had to be restrained. Oh, apparently she did have a screwdriver of some kind, so that part was true.

What I want to know is this: Where are these people getting their information, and what constitutes information trustworthy enough to be reported. Petroleum jelly and the al-Qaeda notes? That's not a mistake or a typo, those are extremely specific and completely unsubstantiated details that someone decided to report as news.

The here fault lies just as much with government and law enforcement officials, who reported the "details" bit by bit as they became available. I don't expect flawless reporting by officials or press, but I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that when major details of national stories are massively, massively incorrect, someone should have kept their mouth shut when they had information they knew to be unverified. Somebody somewhere along the line either lied or passed along unsubstantiated information, also known as rumors. I would like very much for my sources of information, both governmental and media, to care more about this than this morning's Associated Press seems to:

"There were different versions throughout the day from law enforcement and government officials on what Mayo was carrying on board the plane. But all quickly agreed that the woman and any items she was carrying were not connected to terrorism. " (link to AP story)

This was by far the less egregious of the day's two abuses.

Example Two:

After ten years, we appear to have a culprit in the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. From the Associated Press:

"John Mark Karr, 41, will be taken within the week to Colorado, where he will face charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping and child sexual assault, Ann Hurst of the Department of Homeland Security told a news conference in Bangkok.

'I was with JonBenet when she died,' Karr told reporters afterward, visibly nervous and stuttering. 'Her death was an accident.'

Asked if he was innocent of the crime, Karr said: 'No.' " (Hyperlink to AP story already invalid just five minutes after copying this.)

I was watching MSNBC last night as details of this break in the case trickled in one by one, as they are wont to do. On the phone was an officer from the Colorado police department that had been investigating the case since 1996. Asked to explain the connection between Karr's confession and the widely-reported "inside job" details, no footprints in the snow and the lack of evidence of a forced entry to the house, the officer made some corrections. What the media had never widely reported, he said, were that the sidewalks around the house were shoveled free of snow, and that there was indeed a broken basement window, evidence of possible forced entry. So an outsider could very easily have left no footprints on the shoveled sidewalk and broken into the basement.

Ten years into the case and I had never heard or read this detail, only vague reports strongly insinuating that members of the family were involved or at least complicit in JonBenet's murder. If Karr is convicted (far from a certainty; there appear to be some signs that he may be a compulsive confessor), I wonder how many news organizations will apologize to John and Patsy Ramsey, the girl's parents, for the international news stories implicating them and their son Burke for this heinous crime that someone else has now confessed to. I wonder what kind of reparations will be made to the family for completely ruining their reputations for a full decade. Whoops--mother Patsy died of cancer in June. Too late.

I have to admit that I had completely given up on this story. I just assumed we would never find out anything else. Frankly, I assumed, as many did, that the family had something to do with it and that there just wasn't enough evidence to indict anyone. Either that or that the muderer was off somewhere with the Simpson/Goldman killer, where they would watch CNN together and laugh. Then again, I also assumed that we would never see Elizabeth Smart alive again, so I'm probably not the best prognosticator in situations like this.

There's a part of me that wants to not care. Soap opera news stories like this, the most famous U.S. child murder since the Lindbergh baby, repulse me. I hate being dragged into this stuff. I hate that I'm being manipulated into following a news story with the same parts of my brain that wondered if Josh Lyman was going to die after being shot by white supremacists on The West Wing. Dramatizing reality like this makes reality less real; I'm absolutely convinced that it desensitizes us to real events in our own lives. I see stories like this on the news and my first reaction isn't "How awful for that family!" it's "Here we go again. Cue the carnival music."

Here's what I have learned is wrong with network news:

  1. The pressure to "break a story." It seems incredibly obvious to me that media outlets are diregarding previous generations' guidelines about verification before reporting information, all in the name of breaking a story. "It's a CNN exclusive!" "It's a Fox News exclusive!" "Breaking news, and we've got it first!" But honestly, who cares who reported it first, besides TV news moguls? In the Internet age, everyone has it within minutes of everyone else anyway. The only "exclusive" information that captures me at all is exclusive video, audio, or photography. So can we just take that extra couple of minutes to trace the information back and find out if it's more than a rumor?
  2. Abuse of semantics. The media seems to think that the umbrella of "sources say," or "officials are reporting that" is substantively different than "the facts are." It's the same argument that the entertainment industry makes in claiming that the glorification of violence in music, movies, and television don't affect audience attitudes and behavior. By that logic, the entire advertising industry is the biggest waste of money in human history. Domino's commercials make me want pizza, Samuel Adams commercials make me want a beer, NFL commercials make my heart rate increase with excitement about the Redskins' chances this year. Sad movies make me cry, happy movies make me smile, horror movies make me afraid. (Actually, horror movies make me turn the movie off.) We are designed to process images and respond to them, and repeating implications and possibilities cements them into the part of our mind that labels things as "facts." The semantics of news delivery do not absolve you of moral responsibility for the information's reception.
  3. Audience attention span. Along the lines of "Who cares who broke the story" comes this one, the favorite of politicians for centuries. Want to go completely crazy? Click here to see what war-opposing politicians said about Iraq and WMDs just a few years ago. Your heroes are not so courageous as they've led you to believe, folks. It doesn't matter how obvious the flip-flop is; they know you're only voting on what they said in the most recent television sound bites, and that you can't be bothered to research their actual voting records. Those in power know just how unlikely the American public is to call them on their inconsistencies. Incorrect, inaccurate, and irresponsible reporting vanishes from the public consciousness if you report your newer information as "exclusive breaking news!" loud enough and with enough repetitions.
  4. Massive and undeniable bias. Anyone who claims they are reporting without bias is a liar or an idiot. I suppose it's possible that they might be both. The big three and CNN are transparently liberal to varying degrees (I love how CBS replaced the so-biased-he-became-incompetent Dan Rather with Katie Couric, the only major voice more obviously left-wing than he was), and Fox is just as far to the right (fair and balanced my butt). Please note that I'm not actually judging anyone here. Bias is part of what makes us worthwhile as human beings, and it certainly informs us as investigators of the world around us. Denying it is just stupid; news networks should go ahead and label themselves. Then I might start trusting their coverage.
  5. No oversight. Who watches the watchers? Who is punished when false information is presented as fact, then revealed to be otherwise? The media is in the all-powerful position of having Constitutionally-protected rights but no balancing force to compel any sort of responsible use of those rights. What incentive do any of these organizations have to be careful, truthful, or selective? The answer is below:
  6. Advertising dollars. As if all of the above problems weren't enough, we have our sources of "information" beholden to multinational corporations who fund them through advertising revenue. I can't be the only person concerned about the trustworthiness of information sources who are trying simultaneously to make millions of dollars in profit. The profit will always come above public service, no matter what ethics anyone claims to espouse. History has shown us this time and time again; if saints and popes can be tainted by the love of money, why should we assume that mere reporters, editors, and executives are above reproach? It amazes me how many people don't trust their elected officials, many of who take massive pay cuts in the name of public service (as well as, granted, personal power), but they trust every word of Katie Couric, who makes more from a week of half-hour brodcasts than most of us will make in our lifetimes. Understand that I am not talking about intentional corruption, but just as advertising and art affect us in ways that defy logic, being beholden to paymasters also changes us in mysterious ways.

But this whole post is, frankly, entirely useless. I have no solutions, because I believe that there are none. It is in our nature to be flawed and selfish, and there is no reason to assume that change can come on an industry or societal level when change on a personal level takes a lifetime and can only be done with the help of the Creator of the universe.

It's just that the news really ticked me off yesterday.

My blargs are usually funny. I apologize for the seriousness of this one. Here's a small laugh for you: Today I learned that "al-Qaeda" translates into English as "the base." When they find Osama bin Laden, and they will, how much do you want to bet one of the soldiers tells him "All your base are belong to us?"

Monday, August 14, 2006

What I Know About Auditions

I had the dubious honor and enormous responsibility of running the audition process for Richmond Shakespeare's 2006-2007 downtown season over the past week. Actors came from near and far, some driving in from as far as Washington DC, Fredericksburg, and Staunton to audition.

Now, I have participated in my share of professional auditions, generally from the actor side, rather than the auditor side. Some have gone well, some have not. Okay, most have not. But nothing has made me appreciate the necessity for auditioning skills more than running auditions on the collegiate and professional level. If at all possible, actors, get yourself into auditions just to watch other actors screw up. Things that feel perfectly natural while you're performing may look ridiculous and amateurish from the table across the room. You may recognize some things that you do badly in other actors.

If you're an actor interested in improving your auditioning skills, I highly recommend Michael Shurtleff's seminal work, Audition, which goes beyond auditioning skills and well into the tools necessary for creating a three-dimensional performance. And nothing helps your auditioning skills like practicing. Audition for everything, and teach yourself to love auditioning. I mean l-o-v-e love. But there are certain iron-clad facts about auditioning that can be expressed in far shorter terms than Shurtleff's 300 pages. So I am here listing Andrew Hamm's Rules and Guidelines of Auditioning. Take them or (most likely) leave them.
  1. Be yourself. When you perform your monologue, I want to see you be the best you you can be, not the best Hamlet or Ophelia or whatever. Deeply character-specific choices are for callbacks.
  2. Enjoy yourself. Present this message: "I am so happy to be here and I will be so delightful to work with." Present it to everyone you meet and at every moment of the process, from the ASM holding the door to the other actors in your cold-reading scene. Don't overdo it, but be pleasant. Make yourself believe it. If you are unpleasant, I don't care how talented you are. I will not cast people who appear to be rehearsal-room cancer.
  3. Keep your slate basic. I need two pieces of information before your monologue: your name and the play you're performing a piece from. Nothing else. Your auditor either knows the playwright, character, and scene, or they don't care. "Good morning. My name is Andrew Hamm, and I will be performing a piece from Twelfth Night." That's it. K.I.S.S.
  4. No death scenes. One actor actually did a very famous Shakespearean death scene on Monday night. I'm talking very famous. Here's what that looks like: When you come in, smile, give your slate, and immediately transition into level-10 emotional histrionics, that tells me that you are completely faking it. There's no way for you to be connected to your slate and then connected to Hamlet's death that quickly. Pick something a bit lighter, and much closer to you.
  5. Dress appropriately. There is such a thing as too much cleavage, too much leg, and too much makeup (especially if you're a guy). Leave your punk-emo getup at home; all those neckaces, chains and bracelets tell me you're not ready to get down on the floor and roll around (which I needed several actors to do). Don't wear giant-legged MC Hammer pants. Don't wear a rosary, for crying out loud. And don't wear a T-shirt with words on it; I will read the words instead of watching your performance. I compulsively read words when I see them, and I suspect many other theatre artists are the same. This is not the place for your clothes to take the place of genuine personal expression. Dress to move, in a way that shows me your body and a bit of your personality. This is a professional interview, but one that just may involve crawling on a dirty floor.
  6. In callbacks, don't be afraid to go too far! One actor, given the direction "don't be restricted by naturalism," performed Dr. Faustus for me by writhing and shrieking on the floor. Was that what I wanted from Faustus? Hecks no. But it showed me that she was prepared to listen and follow direction, and that she was available for some real emotional extremes. We offered her parts in two shows the day after callbacks.
  7. Take some acting classes. If you're interested in doing Shakespeare (and all actors should be), get some learnin' in ya. Take some classes. Know how to speak the speech and know how to pursue an objective.
  8. Take nothing personally. If we cut you off, it is because we have seen enough to make a judgment, good or bad. If we don't call you back or cast you, it is often because you aren't what we're looking for, or you remind us of an actor who was very bad news recently (we had a couple of these this week), or you are too tall or too short, or you look too young, or just someone else was more appropriate. It is almost never because you are a "bad actor." You have to be like a cornerback: yeah, you just got burned by Santana Moss for a 72-yard touchdown, but you've got to shake it off instantly and get back in position.

The bottom line: in an audition situation, control what you can control and let go of what you can't.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Captain's Log. Stardate: Awesome.

In the world of Star Trek, the "stardate" system is brilliant. The numerical order is thus: Year, Month, Day, then Time. That would make today's date: Stardate 060805.


That will only mean something to a few of you, and it's not worth explaining to the rest.

Next stardate: August 7, 2035.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Toothache Update Update

Needs a root canal. Getting it done later this month.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Vote for "The Amazing Screw-On Head!"

Fans of comics, sci-fi, humor, and Abraham Lincoln: do yourself a huge favor and go to to watch the online pilot for The Amazing Screw-On Head! featuring the art of Mike Mignola and the voices of Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce, and Molly Shannon.

The Amazing Screw-On Head is based on one of the most beloved one-shot comics of all time, created by Hellboy mastermind Mike Mignola. The Sci Fi Channel created this pilot, never aired it, and almost canned it last year. A Screw-On Head series would be among the greatest things in television history. Watch the show and take the survey!

To pique your interest, a summary: In 1862, President Lincoln sends his robotic secret agent, Screw-On Head (a head with interchangeable bodies), and his trusty manservant Mr. Groin, to investigate the theft of a dangerous evil scroll by Emperor Zombie--who just happens to be Screw-On Head's undead once-trusted friend! Where else can you hear an ancient demigod intent on ruling the earth get so angry that he mutters, "I am just beside myself."?