Category: Arts and Entertainment

Photo by Jenny Anderson

 

For students with disabilities (invisible or not), feeling out of place or unrepresented in narratives is not uncommon. One place in particular where this happens is in theater. Because there is a lack of shows that speak to the experiences of people with disabilities and include in their casts people with disabilities, the theater world can at times feel exclusionary.

Gardiner Comfort, an actor based in New York, is changing that with his new one-man show “The Elephant in Every Room I Enter.” We sat down with Comfort, an actor with Tourette Syndrome, to talk about his experience bringing this new show about his experience during a trip to Washington, D.C. for a National Conference for people with Tourette’s to Off-Broadway.

 

How did you get inspired to want to become an actor?

When I was in ninth grade, I went to a new high school that fit my precise learning disabled mind. I was doing characters at the dinner table, and my mom suggested I try out for the school play, All My Sons by Arthur Miller. I got hooked from the experiences of doing play.

In your TED Talk, you talk a lot about being hesitant to, in a sense, “come out” as a person with Tourette’s Syndrome. What factors led you to decide to be more public about it?

I was diagnosed when I was 7, and it’s been hard. There have been times while acting where my tics have been a problem. Directors have difficulty working with me. When I’m on stage, though, it completely goes away. Coming out was nerve wracking: if I’m known as an actor that makes these noises, I might not get hired. People said, “If you have this, why not be more open about it and this unique difference? Why not use it?” I realized I had nothing to lose, and eventually I listened, and now I’ve been writing my whole life.

What are your goals with your upcoming opening of “The Elephant in Every Room I Enter” at Next Door at NYTW?

Honestly, it’s been a labor of love. It’s exhausting because you have to do everything. I could talk for hours about how I and my collaborator Kel have put this show together. It’s incredibly rewarding to be up there doing it and to get the attention of NYTW: it just feels gratifying. We have the best opportunity to attract the attention of major producers from regional theaters. . Hopefully, it gives us more notoriety. It’s a very beautiful, unique show. It can change lives. Our main goal is to make a beautiful piece of art, but it’s such a personal story about something most people really don’t understand. I really think it spreads awareness in a unique way.

What made you decide to make “The Elephant in Every Room I enter” a one-man show?

I think I thought about doing a one man show more than doing a show about Tourette’s. My mother is a choreographer, so I was around dance and theater growing up and saw a lot of individual one-man shows. People like David Hawk inspired me. Even in high school, I was writing short pieces and performing them through college and beyond. Doing one about my life with Tourette’s just followed from that. There’s no one who can better tell my story than me. My collaborator has considered making a screenplay about this. I really enjoy the autonomy of doing a one-man show; I love the physicalness and telling the story and breaking out into side stories. As someone whose mind is always bouncing around the place, it’s useful and great to expand on the story. I enjoy the challenge of being myself.

What should people expect from the show?

I’m very close to the Tourette’s community. To hear people in the audience ticking while I’m doing my show and getting quite close–it’s a profound, moving experience. It can bring me to tears when I hear a young person affected by the show.

I want audiences to prepare for something that is very moving. There’s personal details in it that can be painful memories, but it’s also comedic. There’s the coin of trauma and tragedy. It’s funny. I hope, but quite moving. On top of that, I think the information is rare to see, and we also put these crazy projections on the wall that are a nod to the experience of Tourette’s. It’s like offering a view into my mind. It’s a show that’s really not like anything else. There’s nothing else out there like this.

What was the process of creating this show with co-creator Kel Haney?

It took a really long time. We were in a theater residency here in NY, and we thought we’d write a story about me growing up in NY, but we didn’t have big ideas. In Spring 2014, I went down to this conference in DC (the Tourette National Conference), and my mind was blown seeing hundreds of people ticking. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and telling people about it, and Kel realized that was the subject we could write about. We weren’t sure how to really write it at first; everything kept sounding like an essay. Then, we realized that we could use the method of me telling short stories. Kel would record me and take notes, and then she had an intern transcribe the recording. Over a year long period, we ended up with this story about my week in DC. It was something neither of us have ever done before — reforming these stories to fit this narrative of a week in DC with all of these details about me.

How do you see Broadway/the theater world in general becoming more open to showcasing characters with disabilities and highlighting issues related to feeling like an outsider?

I think things are finally starting to change. I know that there have been a number of shows that highlight disabilities like Curiosity of Dog in Night Time and theaters focusing on characters with hearing disabilities like Deaf West. It’s certainly changing. There’s a lot of argument with people advocating for the disenfranchised. There’s the Apothetae theater company which performs shows with disabled actors and supports helping them perform. How do we make it possible for people to have the same chance to be in roles, especially with theaters that aren’t wheelchair accessible? I’ve definitely felt that I could lose a job because  of it.

What advice do you have for people with disabilities (invisible or not) who may feel isolated in their current communities?

It’s hard. It’s definitely a challenge. I think everyone faces their own challenge and everyone needs to meet that challenge on their own, and I think it’s important for people with disabilities to do what they love and excel at. As someone whose neurology is different, I know acting is something I can do. I know I was easily distractible, the class clown, but I’m lucky I had parents who took the time to let me find my creativity. I really believe that for people like me who think differently, you need to find what it is that you’re good at — even if doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I used to use an Etch A Sketch a lot. I wasn’t good, but I realized over time I could better “see inside” the device. It was a very meticulous, meditative experience. I got a better understanding of the machine, and it allowed my mind to work in a way that it intuitively wanted to.

When I meet young people with Tourette’s, I tell them: Don’t let the world make you think the way you think and interact is unacceptable. You don’t have to conform to every asset of the normal world — be yourself.

 

“The Elephant in Every Room I Enter” runs from November 9th to November 25th. Tickets to Gardiner’s show can be purchased here. He will be hosting talkbacks after matinee shows featuring different members from the Tourette’s community.

During my Crisis, before watching Güeros, I watched Parks and Recreation…Like, all of it. All seven seasons. Before that, I watched the first five seasons of Futurama. Before that, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Love, and every Best Picture winner since 1939 (minus a few bad eggs, not the least of which includes 2005’s Crash—c’mon, give me some credit!).

For all my talk of the “primordial power of cinema” in my last column, I would be remiss—and indeed, quite hypocritical—in failing to acknowledge cinema’s second primary function, borne out of its alluring spectacle quality: cinema as a medium for entertainment.

Indeed, cinema has always possessed a two-fold functionality—as emotional therapy and as spectacle—which was made apparent immediately following film’s inception in the late 1890s. This dichotomy is most obvious among the two towering French pioneers of this early era: Auguste and Louis Lumière (the “Lumière” brothers) and Georges Méliès. Today, these two are widely considered to be the “founding fathers” of cinema, though their bodies of work could not be more antithetical.

For Siegfried Kracauer, one of the most prominent figures in film theory, this opposition highlights what he famously coined as the two “tendencies” of the cinema: the realistic and formative tendencies.

The realistic tendency was first exemplified through the Lumière brothers’ archival films. Their most famous work, titled Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon, takes footage of exactly what the title suggests—within the span of a then-whopping forty-six seconds. The Lumière brothers were interested in, above all, capturing “everyday life after the manner of photographs.” In other words, the realistic tendency strives to capture (or replicate, through staging) the “nakedness” of life, in the style of, say, a documentary.

By contrast, the formative tendency aims to go beyond the replication of physical reality, which, to accomplish, requires emphasis on cinema-specific techniques (special effects). Méliès employed these techniques more adventurously and innovatively than any other filmmaker of his time. The popularization of universally known modern editing strategies such as “time-lapse photography,” “dissolves,” and “hand-painting,” among others, can all be attributed to Méliès. His legacy as the founder of cinema as a “fantastical art” continues today, where he is most recognizably referenced in allusion to his iconic, anthropomorphic moon from A Trip to the Moon.

Although it is clear that most of cinema displays an overlap between these two tendencies, Kracauer’s teachings have nevertheless continued to serve as a useful starting point for many a timid freshman entering the daunting realm of film theory for the first time. All subsequent cases for a “purpose of cinema” tend to exist within Kracauer’s rough outline of these two core functions: cinema as verisimilitude, and cinema as spectacle.

Modern audiences would tend to agree that the best works of cinema employ a harmonious balance between these two. Films on either end of the spectrum do not hold the attention of mass audiences for very long. If anything, a quick look at any recent “highest-grossing films” list within the last few years will show the People’s obvious predilection for spectacle. Films like Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story all feature fantastical worlds narratively rooted and motivated by traditional, realist plots—realist insofar as they thematically mirror the plights of our own modern world, whether at the level of the individual, community, or, as in Civil War’s case, nations. Such films succeed in achieving both awe-inspiring and emotional satisfaction. On the flip-side, this clear predilection for spectacle means studios will blatantly abandon substance by backing up projects that rely on the spectacle element alone (Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, The Legend of Tarzan, etc.).

(Note: the ongoing success of this era’s Golden Age of Television indicates an audience leaning towards verisimilitude, seemingly contradicting my observations thus far. However, one must take into account the different nature of the TV show, which is fundamentally distinct from that which be accurately deemed “cinematic”—but all this for a later time.)

Although it’s safe to say that the average Columbian is more cultured than the average person, outside of film majors and cinephiles, it’s also probably safe to say that the average Columbian isn’t as well-versed in film as they are in, say, literature, art, or music. The reason for this is obvious: much of the Columbian’s expansive cultural lore can be attributed to our beloved Core Curriculum, which sadly does not include a “Film Humanities” course.

Attempting to coin a term like “Film Humanities” might seem preposterous and naïve on the outset, but such a negative reaction is unwarranted as it is probably based on one of two (or both) fallacious assumptions:

  1. Film is predominantly a “spectacle-based” art, unqualified for the kind of rich and complex analyses other arts tend to incite.
  2. Film is too young an art form and lacks the historical breadth necessary for making any substantial claims about the human condition that are worth investigating in a scholarly fashion.

To the first, we have already discussed film’s two-fold capacity for realism and spectacle, which implies that there exists a whole canon of films predominantly concerned with verisimilitude, with dealing with subject-matters relevant to the human experience. The “spectacle-based” argument illustrates a biased account of cinematic history, whereby at the turn of the millennium the Digital Age pretty much ensured that film as a “fantastical art” would be the way of the future, rendering all previous cinematic periods obsolete in the public eye.

I would also add that to reject “spectacle” point-blank as an element abolishing any degree of humanities-based discourse in an absolute sense is also erroneous, for it fails to take into account the vast and rich spectrum of variations of genre within the real and fantastical (i.e. Ontological Realism, Psychological Realism, Aesthetic Realism; see Bazin’s “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”)—a spectrum evident in literature as well. Consider, for example, the tremendous difference, from a genre standpoint, between Homer’s The Iliad and Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, both of which are required readings for Literature Humanities.

I will counter the second point in a later column, it being deserving of its own thorough investigation.

For now, I encourage all Columbians—especially those for whom “cinema” is tantamount to “that which is relevant to the current cultural zeitgeist”—to voluntarily explore the history of cinema with the same level of seriousness with which the Core bestows the other, more “noble” arts.

To begin with, this will require a “survey of the greats,” for which I urge you to temporarily put your beloved Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Video TV show on hold and direct yourself to filmstruck.com, where you can subscribe for a two-week trial. This should be enough time to at least begin exploring the following list I have curated for you below. (And if it’s not, you can use this website to see what other platforms offer these films.) All of the following works share a “crossover” (to “artsy” films) appeal that I hope to instill in all you soon-to-be-cinephiles.

  1. The Red Balloon (1956), Albert Lamorisse.
  2. Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Alfonso Cuarón.
  3. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), Abdellatif Kechiche.
  4. In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-wai.
  5. A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Cassavetes.
  6. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, (1972), Werner Herzog.
  7. Three Colors: Red (1994), Krzysztof Kieślowski.
  8. The Great Beauty (2013), Paolo Sorrentino.
  9. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973),Víctor Erice.
  10. Seven Samurai (1954), Akira Kurosawa.

Enjoy.

P.S. Here is my favorite reference to Méliès, from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011).

Photo courtesy of Kuldeep Singh

 

This past week, Columbia Taal, the only South-Asian fusion dance team, hosted an event on campus called Samatva. This event included performances from Columbia Taal and Columbia Raaga, which is Columbia’s South-Asian fusion music organization. The showcase performance of the night, however, was led by junior Sophia Salingaros and her dance partner, Jeeno Joseph.

Photo courtesy of Kuldeep Singh.

Both Sophia and Jeeno performed a series of Bharatanatyam pieces, which is the most well-known form of Indian classical dancing. The Bharatanatyam style places great emphasis on the rigidity of the upper body as well as its nuanced use of hand and facial gestures as a sort of pseudo sign language. Historically, this style of dance was meant to be perceived as an interpretation of various Hindu myths, but it has in recent times become a source of resistance against its historical stereotypes. Sophia and Jeeno utilized this movement to create powerful and moving pieces of beautiful dancing to demonstrate that boundaries—religious, gendered, and political—don’t exist in art.

The notion of samatva, the word for “equality” in Sanskrit, can be seen throughout the entirety of their performance. Sophia and Jeeno, as a non-Indian and a Christian, respectively, demonstrate the ability to break through and transcend socially constructed historical biases. Their performance itself was extremely elegant and conveyed the richness of the Indian cultural tradition, which goes to show that art itself cannot be contained by external limitations, because it is the ultimate means of self-expression.

Raaga and Taal were both perfect complements to Sophia and Jeeno’s performance because they added the element of a group performance, which allowed multiple voices to come together in unison and create something incredibly powerful.

If you missed this performance, be sure to check out Sophia and Jeeno at the Battery Dance studios on November 11th and 26th, and be on the lookout for Taal and Raaga’s next performances on campus!

After twenty-one years of a beautifully reciprocal relationship, Television and I have hit a rough patch. What have I done to deserve this? For years, I have given him every spare minute of my time, turned to him in my hour of need, loved him unconditionally and completely. Our relationship was always new and refreshing, and every time I thought he began to take me for granted, he’d surprise me with an incredible new show and remind me why I loved him. But, things have changed. The enormous lack of fall television has left me brokenhearted, alone, and rebounding with not-so-good-for-me-but-incredibly-enticing Netflix.

Network television’s fall TV premiere line-up seemed promising. There were the obvious shoe-ins in the shape of returning series: Season Two of This Is Us, more Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and cult favorites like Empire, Scandal, and Supernatural. Personally, I couldn’t wait to find out more about This is Us’s Pearson family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg’s stint in jail, and I eagerly counted down the days until The CW’s Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend returned to prime time. I was excited to return to the ins and outs of Firehouse 51 in Chicago Fire and even willing to give Designated Survivor’s sophomore season a chance. But they all let me down.

This Is Us has gotten so predictable that even the background music seems cliché. Rachel Bloom’s strong feminist character in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is suddenly acting like an immature child. Jane the no-longer virgin has a boring new love interest (I told you that Michael was the heart and soul of that show), and nobody significant has been killed off of Chicago Fire since Season Two (it’s now entering its sixth season), which makes the whole “will they survive?” vibe kind of ridiculous. To top it all off, Designated Survivor is no longer focused on the survivor, and Andy Samberg turns out to make a horrible convict.

Desperate to salvage my relationship, I turned to new premieres. ABC’s The Good Doctor had a fascinating premise (it’s about an autistic surgeon), but after the first episode I was already bored with every character other than the main one. Adam Scott and Craig Robinson’s new comedy Ghosted felt like an even less-funny version of Men In Black (and MIB isn’t even a comedy…), and Daveed Digg’s The Mayor is cute, but nothing to write home about.

So here I am: bored with TV, hoping for a better mid-season lineup, and watching Gossip Girl on Netflix to pass the time.  

So… it’s up to you now, Television: Woo me. Here’s to hoping we’ll rekindle our love in the winter.

Guests, pre-insanity (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, an opera based on a 1962 film directed by Luis Buñuel, is absurd. Aristocrats return to their mansion after an opera outing. They soon discover that they cannot leave the dining room. Naturally, they become crazy and turn on each other. It is the idle domesticity of Clue mixed with Lord of the Flies savagery.

I was initially concerned that Adès’s music glorified these lifeless subjects. How could he write high-strung heroisms for such ennui? Juxtaposed elements, though, frame the opera’s macabre. Lovers fondle each other naked. Luscious harmonies hug crazed language: “Birds of our coupled mouths, while death enters through our feet.” This is not a prototypical tragedy; we’re not meant to feel for the plutocrats. But the music points toward sympathy. Disparate moods compete in this creation of unreality.

Accompanying exhibition for the production. Human hands, lamb legs, and olive branches for dinner. Bon appétit!

Adès etches continuous, pulsating phrases in the love scene (See “O Albion,” from Arcadiana, for an example of this style). The music pictures a spaceship creeping through a mysterious fog. Cohesive linearity is rare in New Music aesthetics, which often favor disjunction and fragmentation.

The work clearly targets the aristocracy. After the richies go crazy, the mulling mob asks: “Are they all dead?’ Answer: “This is to be hoped.”

Could the affluent figures stand as representations of the one percent in tonight’s seats? Wealth inequality unabashedly lurks in the Met’s walls. Price of my ticket has $115 base rate, plus $7.50 service fee, and then a $2.50 facility fee (thank god for press tickets.). This is a hierarchized concert life. One price does not fit all.

The bottom-dwellers – those on the lower levels – finance opera. At intermission they chow down on über-expensive meals on the second tier, gazing out on Lincoln Center’s plaza, served by dressed-up waiters. It’s possible to witness the residual effects of aristocratic ass-kissing. Met employees grunt, curse, hold curt, stony expressions. At the ticket window, my ticket was flung at me with disgust. Misery swirls among workers. Yet, galas “celebrate” the one percent’s contributions. The Met wants to wrestle money from their coffers to supplement their seemingly-perpetually sinking finances.

Adès confronts the art form, crusting with opulence, and the Met, which stages stagnant, thoughtless “tradition” for commercial indulgence – here you will not find feminist productions of troublesome “classics.” Through financial support, donors implicate themselves in the opera’s demands: Adès skewers those who bankroll him. I wonder if ticket refunds will soon be in premium demand.