Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

New Joe Jackson!

Joe Jackson's first new album in five years (a very long time by JJ standards) came out this week! The mailman just delivered my signed copy!

I'll review it as soon as I can get around to listening to it all. All I know is that the whole album is piano trio with JJ on keys, Graham Maby on bass, and Dave Houghton on drums. The first track, "Invisible Man," at least, is vintage freaking Joe.

Frank Creasy and I are sacrificing our chance to see him at the 9:30 Club on April 10 in favor of doing some silly Shakespeare thing...

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Kucinich Out of the Race

From the AP: Kucinich abandons White House bid.

I have to say that I am geniunely sorry to see Dennis Kucinich drop out of the race for President. I may not agree with many of his policies and stances, but Congressman Kucinich is a rare animal in American politics: a man of integrity. He's one of the few I see who actually appears to believe what he professes to, and he always raises the level of debate when he addresses an issue. I trust him to see things I don't see from an angle of honesty and good conscience, and find his arguments difficult to dismiss. That's the definition of a statesman.

Kucinich will focus instead on a tough congressional race in Cleveland. The four Democratic primary challengers for his seat have a hell of a fight ahead of them.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Smoke Free VA Now"... By Any Means Necessary

I just heard one of the most appallingly disingenuous misuses of facts in my entire life, and what kills me most about it is just how effective it's certain to be.

WRVA just played a commercial from Smoke Free Virginia Now which touted the following information:

1) that an estimated 1700 Virginians die as a result of secondhand smoke every year,

2) that the Surgeon General recently declared that "there is no safe amount of exposure to secondhand smoke," and

3) that 98% of Virginians believe that secondhand smoke is dangerous.

The next part of the commercial implored the listener: "In the face of this overwhelming evidence" I should contact my legislator to get anti-smoking laws passed.

Okay, first of all, I loathe smoking. It gives you cancer and emphysema, it makes your eyes and skin gross, it makes you smell, it makes me smell if you're smoking and I'm near you, and I find people to be unpleasant to be around when they're smoking. I don't smoke, I have never smoked (other than celebratory cigars and a single clove cigarette because it was freshman year of college), I never plan to smoke, and I avoid places where there is smoking.

That said, this commercial is a pack of lies and bull#### that deliberately manipulates the few facts it uses.

1) The connection between secondhand smoke and death is emotional and anecdotal, and the science is so far from compelling that it makes global warming look like holy scripture. See the following sites for evidence and commentary: The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News and Commentary, Clearing the Air, Junk Science, and the impressive Dave Hitt.

2) Surgeon Generals throughout the years have often been both politically motivated speakers and demonstrably wrong about medical science. And the SG's statements are frequently excerpted out of context by activist organizations to support fanatic and frantic claims. In point of fact, the SG's report on Reproductive and Developmental Effects from Exposure to Secondhand Smoke concludes:

The evidence is suggestive but not sufficient to infer a causal relationship between prenatal and postnatal exposure to secondhand smoke and childhood cancer. ... The evidence is inadequate to infer the presence or absence of a causal relationship between exposure to secondhand smoke during infancy and childhood cancer. The evidence is suggestive but not sufficient to infer a causal relationship between prenatal and postnatal exposure to secondhand smoke and childhood leukemias. The evidence is suggestive but not sufficient to infer a causal relationship between prenatal and postnatal exposure to secondhand smoke and childhood lymphomas. The evidence is suggestive but not sufficient to infer a causal relationship between prenatal and postnatal exposure to secondhand smoke and childhood brain tumors.

I count four references to the evidence being "suggestive but not sufficient," as well as one "inadequate" in there. Even the strongest language can only "infer a casual relationship."

3) I don't give a rat's what 98% of Virginians believe. 100% of Italians believed the world was flat. 100% of many Native American tribes believed it was balanced on the back of a turtle. Let me write this as large as blogspot will let me:


They certainly do not eqate to the "overwhelming evidence" that Smoke Free VA Now touts so earnestly and smugly in their radio spot.

If the people of Virginia want to outlaw smoking because it's yucky and they don't like it, that's fine; I can respect that point of view. For the most part, I share it. But if you have to lie and manipulate to make a compelling argument, well, you've got nothing as far as I'm concerned.

I hate smoking. It disgusts me. It's on its way to being outlawed, another freedom being taken from us for our own good by well-intentioned liberals with extremely short memories (*cough* PROHIBITION *cough*). But this is a dirty way to try to sway public opinion to your cause, disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. You want to attack a legal behavior that's scientifically proven to ruin families, shorten lifespans, lower income, and reduce self-image? Attack premarital sex and adultery.

You should also read Hitler's Anti-Tobacco Campaign for laughs and shivers of fear.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Where the Heck Has Andrew Been?

Sorry for the long pause, folks. It's been a crazy week since coming back from STAA. I don't have time to write the seven long posts I'd like to, so here are a few bullet points.

STAA was a lot of fun this year. Last year, I was miserable much of the time, and this year I had a blast. I felt like I actually had something to contribute to the discussions, people remembered my name and were actually glad to see me, I sat in a training committee with Tina Packer and Jim Volz and didn't freak out or start to cry.

Somehow, I became co-chair of the training committee with Rebecca Ellis of Chesapeake Shakespeare, under chairperson Jan Powell. I pitched a research project examining the disconnection between the Shakespeare training theatre programs give and the training Shakespeare theatres require. I learned about the 220. I met Patrick Spottiswood from the Globe in London, and I made Tina Packer laugh. And I met a man named Paige who runs the Shakespeare Theatre of South Africa, which performs for people who have not only never seen Shakespeare before, they haven't seen theatre before.

I even found an afternoon to visit Zion National Park. Words don't begin to do it justice:

It is definitely the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I took over 200 pictures and videos; you can literally point your camera blindly in any direction and come out feeling like Ansel Adams.

Rehearsals for Measure for Measure are proceeding apace. This is my fourth time sharing Richmond Shakespeare's stage with Liz Blake, but the first in which we've really worked closely together. It's a good thing she's so fabulous, because we both agreed last night that we need to work as much on our two scenes together as on the entire rest of the play combined. James Bond is deftly holding parts back while pushing others forward; I have a feeling he has some amazing stuff still up his sleeve that I haven't even guessed at yet. The show is starting to take shape, and I know I say this every time (actually I don't, it just seems that way), but Measure for Measure is going to be a very special show, very raw and challenging for both actors and audiences alike.

That's all I can think of for now. Thanks for reading my ramblings. I may put up more Zion pictures later. I wish you could all have been there.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I Am the Worst Actor in the World.

If you're an actor, you've had that thought. You know what I'm talking about. You've been in a rehearsal where you just weren't feeling it, or you blew an absurd number of your lines, or the director didn't like any of your ideas. Well, that's me, last night, in rehearsal for Measure for Measure. And I'm going to write about it, not to get sympathy or compliments, but because I think talking about it is valuable.

I'm playing Angelo, a tricky role in the best of circumstances. He's the "villain" of the piece, who goes from puritanical legalist to attempted rapist overnight. Actually, it's faster than overnight; it turns very nearly on a dime.

Now I've played bad guys before; Cassius' motives were somthing short of pure. And I've played a sex-crazed womanizing bastard before; in fact I wrote myself a part in Project Evil's Held for the express purpose of getting a chance to stretch as an actor. But I was just nervous and self-conscious all night last night, in ways I haven't been in a rehearsal room for well over a decade. I really should be better than this.

Part of it may be simple distraction. I was working last night with the specter of a business trip kind of looming; I am in fact typing this in the Charlotte airport on my way to Cedar City Utah and the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America conference (by way of one night in Las Vegas). So I had this long trip on my mind, as well as the fact that I'm about to be spending the next five days with 130 people who are all, frankly, far more knowledgeable and passionate about Shakespeare than I am.

Part of it is, of course, the simple facts of early rehearsal: my script is still in my hand, I haven't made much of any decisions about my intentions in the scene, I'm trying to remember the blocking we tried when we ran it a minute ago, I'm trying to write blocking in. Part of it is the subject matter of the scene; if I was comfortable with the first rehearsal of a scene involving sexual coersion I would probably not be the man I want to be. And honestly, part of it is the fact that my scene partner, Liz Blake, is really pretty, and I have always been shy and stupid around pretty girls. (Yes, I know; I've been married for ten and a half years to an incredibly beautiful woman; she's pretty much the only one who doesn't turn me into a blithering idiot by making eye contact.) Liz is a great friend, she's my unofficial little sister, and we've worked together a bunch in the past few years. I should be much more comfortable; I should be able to do this better.

What really bothered me was that I wasn't coming up with much of anything in the way of concrete or interesting ideas, and when I did hit what I thought was a spark of something, James (who, I must mention, is very nearly my favorite director of all time, right up there with Gary Hopper) steered me toward something else, pretty much every time. And James' ideas were so rich, so vibrant, and so damn interesting that I frankly spent the whole night pissed at myself for being so utterly bland and boring. I just couldn't focus all night.

You know, I'm pretty good at this. Art hasn't always come exactly easily to me, but it's at least come naturally; even when it's a struggle I can usually see where I'm eventually headed. Right now I don't see it. So now I'm in the Charlotte airport, waiting for a flight, angry with myself, realizing I can't listen to music on the plane because my MP3 player is in my freaking phone, I should be working on my lines, and today just sucks. I am the worst actor in the world.

So thank God for rehearsal.

Let's get real here. It was the first time running the play's most difficult scene. It was script in hand. We have four more weeks to make it better. It's a hard freaking role. It's fracking Shakespeare. And theatre is a collaborative effort, not a contest. James knows what he's doing; it's his job to have better ideas than mine. It's my job to put flesh on his ideas, to realize them in the best way that I can. As Jennifer Massey taught me, I am sufficient. As Stanislavski taught me, and as I try so desperately to teach my acting students, who I am is infinitely more interesting than anything I could ever make up.

Because here's the thing: rehearsals are all about failure. It's what they're designed for. Where else can you try something that sucks, find out it sucks, say "Wow, that sucked," and determine to do something else instead. I've got four weeks to discover something else. Not I, we.

So thank goodness I sucked so badly last night. And believe me, I sucked the joint up bigtime. Rehearsal is for theatre artists to, in the words of Aaron Anderson, "Take the suck out."

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Probably the Greatest Album Cover of All Time

I recently picked up a whole lot of old and obscure Kansas and Kansas-related music from various sources. For those of you who don't know, I grew up in a house of older brothers who liked progressive rock in the 1970s, and I still seriously dig bombastic music from the likes of Kansas, Yes, Genesis, ELP, Renaissance and Dream Theater. While I've been seriously grooving on some great old live Kansas stuff from 1976 and 1980 as well as much of the Kerry Livgren solo stuff I've never been able to find, the real prize was unexpected. It wasn't even music. It was the cover to Kansas singer Steve Walsh's 1980 solo album, Schemer-Dreamer.

Check out all its majesty:

I'll describe it for the visually-impaired.

The whole cover is a painting. At the top of the picture is the artist's name, "STEVE WALSH," in huge block letters in a font that would not look out of place on the side of a football helmet. Under that, bracketed by the tiny words "SCHEMER" and "DREAMER" is the man's face, lips slightly parted as he sings or perhaps concentrates on a distant moving object, his hair ruffled by the wind. A mountain range resembling the Grand Tetons stretches across the background, with a blanket of green trees covering its roots.

To the right of giant-Steve-face is a three-quarters, or "cowboy" shot of Steve singing. he is shirtless; in fact he wears only a pair of red short-shorts. His torso ripples with muscles. To the left of giant-Steve-face is another Steve of the same scale as singing-Steve which can only be called athletic-Steve. Athletic-Steve's entire body can be seen performing a vault of some kind, revealing athletic footwear and knee pads. His torso ripples with muscles. The short-shorts are the same.

(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned here that the shorts-and-kneepads combo is what Steve wore for most or all Kansas gigs in the 70s. It wasn't a fashion statement, it was utilitarian; he covered every inch of that stage during a high-energy performance, and in fact used to do handstands on his keyboard--I've seen him do it as late as summer of 2000. It's amazing. He wore shorts because he would have sweat through his clothes in short order, and kneepads because of, well, knee protection. But you know what? Peter Gabriel and his band wore knee pads in the 1980s, and they had the decency to keep their shirts on for the concerts and album covers.)

At the bottom of the frame, stretching from side to side in the shadow of the mountains is the inside of a massive stadium, with the silhouetted figures of what appear to be roadies stacking rectangles of various sizes and shapes around a huge rock band setup.

But this is the best part: Dominating the picture, directly underneath giant-Steve-face and apparently in the middle of the stadium scene is a fourth, greatest Steve: NRA-Steve. Still shirtless, now wearing yellow shorts or pants, his hip cocked to the side to match his devil-may-care smirk, Steve is pointing not one but two massive handguns directly at the viewer, one of which has a scope of some sort on it (not really appropriate for a pistol). He's wearing sunglasses and, for safety's sake, ear protection. Yes, it would be a shame if he damaged his hearing from the sound of his enormous handguns blowing gaping, bloody holes in the fans who bought his album. His torso, of course, ripples with muscles.

Here's what the All Music Guide has to say about the cover:

"A great album cover should give an indication of the sound of an album, or at least its sensibility. Happily, that much is indeed true with Steve Walsh's solo debut, Schemer-Dreamer, which sports what very well could be the greatest album cover in rock history. There are no less than four illustrations of Walsh, all shirtless and in running shorts, with the point of focus being an image of Walsh in sunglasses towering over a stadium and pointing two guns at the viewer (thankfully, he's being safe and wearing ear protection); above it is a glamorous head shot silhouetted by a mountain range, with his hair looking appropriately wind-swept; to the right is a shot of him singing and to the left, he's engaged in an indiscernible athletic activity. It's a portrait of an id raging out of control -- it's the Dirk Diggler album brought to life!"

Don't ask me what Schemer-Dreamer sounds like. I haven't heard it yet and may never listen to it. I want to savor the mental image I have of what it should sound like, a sort of combination of "Hold Your Head Up," "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," and "Trogdor." If there's another 1980 arena-rock machismo cliche that can be squeezed into the picture, I can't figure out what it could be or how it could fit in there.

Steve Walsh is a great singer, probably my favorite rock vocalist of all time. But this album cover is clearly his greatest contribution to civilization. Thank you, Steve Walsh, for the exercise in huge ego and horrible judgment that greets viewers of the cover to Schemer-Dreamer. #### "Dust in the Wind." Your place in the rock pantheon is secure.