Wet seats, The Moth, jookin’ and more: An Aspen Ideas Fest reporter’s notebook
Legendary theater director Julie Taymor said she was “dying” during the preview screening of her new film version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on June 27 at Paepcke Auditorium.
The movie captures a performance of her acclaimed staging of the play last year at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Ideas Fest screening was the first public showing of it anywhere. And, as she and the audience found seconds into the film, the audio tracking isn’t quite in sync with the film yet, giving it a dubbed kung-fu-flick feel.
It got better about 20 minutes into it, and the movie was still an astounding thing to behold. But, as former Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner noted, nobody stormed out or stirred during the technical difficulties.
“When the audience doesn’t budge and they sit through the technical problems, you’ve got a huge hit,” he said.
Eisner also gave away a little movie-executive secret. He said he gauges how engaged an audience is with a film by how many people go to the bathroom during a film (very few did during Taymor’s 140-minute film). With children’s movies, the mark of success, he said, is when kids opt to stay seated while relieving themselves.
“You know it’s a non-boring film when you’ve got a lot of wet seats,” he said.
The filmed theater production gives a serious treatment to what’s normally done as a farcical, fanciful Shakespearean comedy. Taymor said that’s what drew her to it.
“I’ve never seen another (production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) that I liked,” she said. “It’s always so silly, and it’s anything but silly.”
Ricthie Zah, the Juilliard violinist turned Aspen cop, provided the music Tuesday night for The Moth’s presentation at the Hotel Jerome. The storytelling nonprofit returned to Aspen for the second time in less than four months for a sold-out Ideas Fest performance.
Here’s hoping that Aspen remains a regular stop for The Moth. Launched in 1997, it presents live storytelling performances from mostly ordinary folks with extraordinary stories. “The Moth Radio Hour,” a program featuring the best of The Moth’s curated live presentations, debuted in 2009 and now airs on more than 200 stations in the U.S., including Aspen Public Radio.
Hosted by “Blues Clues” actor Steve Burns, the evening included five stories.
Arianna Huffington told one about unplugging from her Blackberry after a burnout-induced physical breakdown.
Comedian Hari Kondabolu talked about discussing race in his stand-up act, tensions he’s felt with white audiences as a brown comedian and the odd joy he felt when a heckler yelled, “Go back to America,” during a show in Europe. White audiences, he said, have told him to “go back” to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.
“Whatever country our country is bombing, I’m told to go back there,” he said.
Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb told a resonant, hilarious story about her quest to find a sperm donor at age 37, gunning for a popular donor online and attempting to woo a Harvard student to donate to her reproductive cause.
Upright Citizens Brigade’s Kate Tellers left few dry eyes in the Jerome ballroom during a story about her mother’s death and bringing friends and family to eat and drink together for her last night before passing.
“Come here for one of the worst nights of your life,” she recalled telling them. “But also bring cheese.”
And LA Moth StorySLAM host Brian Finkelstein told one about his adventures undergoing medical treatment for an irregular heartbeat. After getting a heart shock, taking Propofol and various measures, the issue was cured and, oddly, he began to dream while sleeping for the first time in his life.
“I’ve had sex dreams and horrible, horrible murder dreams,” he said. “I love them both.”
I was disappointed when I looked at the Ideas Fest agenda and found that this year’s Aspen Institute artist-in-residence, Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley, was scheduled for just two short afternoon events. In past years, it’s been a highlight of the arts tracks to hear from resident artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Tobias Wolff and Anna Deveare Smith on various topics, and in performance, throughout the festival.
But then on Saturday afternoon, walking across campus, I spotted him in the Marble Garden and found out what he was doing with his free time: dancing. Or, in the parlance of his native Memphis, jookin’.
The 26-year-old was seemingly levitating around the iconic Herbert Bayer-designed sculptures, making improvisational moves that went far beyond moonwalking. Bayer would have been proud.
During a panel titled “The Museum as Citizen” Wednesday afternoon, an audience member asked Aspen Art Museum Director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson how she makes people feel welcome in an “elitist” locale like Aspen.
The question drew some laughs, but Jacobson answered diplomatically.
“We react negatively to the idea of being elitist,” she said. “I think, being a contemporary art museum, that’s your first hurdle — the idea of the inaccessibility of contemporary art. But we’ve done everything we can, including making admission free, so people can’t say we’re elitist. … One of the powers of being in Aspen is that people are drawn here magnetically from a variety of places and whatever it is they consume here, participate in or engage in they bring back with them.”
The panel also included Michael Govan, of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Thelma Golden, of the Studio Museum, Glenn Lowry, of the Museum of Modern Art, and Lisa Phillips, of the New Museum.
Govan argued that admission prices don’t actually keep people away from museums if museums can communicate effectively with a broad base of people about their shows and programs.
“Free admission is great,” he said. “But that’s not the fundamental barrier when people don’t know what’s inside.”
A week of country music at Belly Up.
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