THE ARTS PAPER – ARTICLES
Craft of songwriting no secret to local artist
Anne Marie Menta. Photo by Lisa
Call it Anne Marie Menta’s five-year plan. Since 1999,
the highly regarded singer-songwriter has been putting out
CDs on a half-decade basis. And just in time comes her new
one, the engaging Seven Secrets, which was released
in November. Recorded at studios in Stratford and West Haven,
the disc has a warm, inviting sound. Menta, who has developed
her craft playing pop, folk and country, performs a set of
songs that by turns are romantic, wistful, nostalgic, sad
“Without being overly analytical, I would say that I
looked at the songs that made the album and thought they were
all some kind of small revelations or discoveries –
so, the ‘secrets’ part,” Menta explains.
Her enthusiasm for music began early, responding to the records
her older brother Peter was bringing home from college in
the mid-1960s: Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and then the
“The music on the radio then was just fantastic,”
Menta recalls in an interview at her home. “I wanted
to sing and play before I thought about writing.”
After her other older brother John took up guitar, Anne Marie
would occasionally sneak into his room to play it. When he
caught her one time, he suggested they convince their father
to get her one of her own.
She began performing folk music in junior high school and
continued playing coffeehouse-type events in high school.
Her first songwriting attempts were in high school. A “cool
English teacher” was the faculty sponsor for the folk
“When I handed in my teenage angst poems,” recalls
Menta, “she wrote a note: ‘Why don’t you
set these to music?’”
A serious music apprenticeship began in the 1980s when she
joined the Wanderers, led by her brother John, who has since
passed away. The Wanderers were a cover band playing 1960s
dance music “that was retro even then,” according
to Menta. She likens her time with the Wanderers to an “internship”:
they picked songs for her and she would have to learn the
rhythm guitar and vocal harmony parts. She continued to dabble
in the folk scene and listened to country-influenced singer-songwriters
like Emmylou Harris.
When the Wanderers folded, Menta found a niche singing with
a succession of local country bands, gradually introducing
more of her own songs into the sets. But by the mid-1990s,
the country scene was changing, becoming “less open,”
from Menta’s perspective. She committed herself to performing
and recording her own material. Seven Secrets is
her third CD. Untried & True and When the
Love Ran Deep were released in 1999 and 2004, respectively.
Menta has no one method for songwriting.
“It depends on the song. Sometimes I have a melody,
sometimes I have a lyrical idea, which I write down in little
notebooks,” she says.
“When I was younger I used to think (songwriting was)
like a bolt of inspiration and the song(s) would come in a
quick way and I would write them down and never change them,
like they were sacred,” Menta says. “Now I work
a lot harder to make them better. I’m more of a rewriter
than I used to be. Every note and every word counts.”
A voracious listener and reader of songwriter biographies,
Menta is both inspired and challenged by the examples of artists
such as Jimmy Webb, composer of hits such as “By the
Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman.”
“You realize it’s so much work and you’re
really an amateur,” says Menta. “These are guys
who really know what they’re doing and they agonize
over the word ‘the.’ Finding just the right melody
for just the right lyric – it’s really important
to work at it.”
With Seven Secrets, Menta had help honing her songwriting
from her friend Dick Neal, a well-respected local musician
who produced the record and played a number of string instruments
on the songs. Menta also covers Neal’s “Blue Town”
on the disc. She dubs Neal a “song doctor,” telling
me in an e-mail that “he’s the musical editor
that you want to have, besides being a great player.”
The record was recorded this past summer, but the preparation
began the previous year as Menta “woodshedded”
the songs with Neal.
“Dick is such a good and precise writer that he often
came up with just the right suggestion to improve a song,”
Menta says. “Or, he’d challenge me to find a better
solution – so then I have to go back and work some more
– a great thing, really.”
The disc is short, clocking in at just under 30 minutes. (It
was originally planned as a six-song EP, but was fleshed out
with two additional tracks.) Several of the basic tracks –
voice and guitar – were recorded live in the studio,
which was a departure for Menta. There was a conscious attempt
on her part to write concisely, something Menta refers to
as “the art of the three-minute song.”
Only the song “Never Told” exceeds four minutes.
A family remembrance, it’s Menta’s tribute to
her late father, a veteran of World War II. Inspired in part
by a Ken Burns documentary on the war, the song transcends
its personal significance for Menta. Over a backing of acoustic
guitar and the old-timey wheeze of a harmonium, she sings,
“You never told what you went through/and it was so
much more than I knew of you.”
There are tantalizingly precise details: a “cardboard
box of medals” in the back of her top drawer and “some
colored beads you brought back/brown and orange, green and
red from Africa, they said/and exactly where you got them
no one’s really sure.”
“There are veterans’ stories not told after every
war,” Menta says. “I’m hoping if someone
doesn’t get the historical references it will still
Synthesizing her influences, Menta blends folk, country and
pop on Seven Secrets. The song “Got to Know”
sports a full-band singer-songwriter pop arrangement, layering
ooh-ooh harmony vocals, electric guitar stabs, Hammond B3
organ, and piano. “(Bare Bones of My) Empty Heart,”
on the other hand, is delicately infused with cello over the
acoustic guitar, a spare arrangement to suit the sparseness
of the lyrical concept. Menta delves into the themes of family,
love and loss with a winning grace and a warm voice.
Although she has traveled as far afield as Florida to play,
and has occasionally performed in New York and Massachusetts,
Menta is primarily a local musician. Like most local musicians,
Menta makes her living with a day job, not with her voice
and guitar. Music is an avocation but an important one. The
reward, she concedes, is not monetary.
“I hesitate to use the word therapy, but writing is
really helpful for me,” Menta says. “I have accepted
in my head that it’s for the work that you really do
it, of writing the songs, the music itself. Because you have
to do it. It’s some kind of need, and whether it’s
neurotic or not, I don’t know.”
Anne Marie Menta’s CDs are available through CD Baby
Aspiring musicians learn from top performers
David A. Brensilver
Neighborhood Music School students
pose for a photo in front of the U.S. Capitol. Photo
by Vicky Chang.
On November 4, 18 young musicians from Neighborhood Music
School were among 120 students from around the country who
visited the White House to attend workshops with and experience
performances by four of today’s most remarkable and
accomplished classical instrumentalists: violinist Joshua
Bell, guitarist Sharon Isbin, pianist Awadagin Pratt, and
cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
Three weeks removed from the trip to Washington, D.C., 15-year-old
violinist Justin Green, a junior at James Hillhouse High School,
said, “I hope I can remember all this. I hope I can
make the most out of all this.”
The opportunity fell in Neighborhood Music School Executive
Director Lawrence Zukof’s lap through a combination
of reputation and serendipity. In mid-October, one of the
school’s faculty members got a tip from a relative in
New York who is friends with Weilerstein’s manager.
That connection, and the fact that the school has what Zukof
described as “a lot of renown, nationally,” led
to a call from the White House. And just a few weeks later,
five cellists, five pianists, five violinists, and three guitarists
from Neighborhood Music School, along with Zukof and Board
President Hedda Rubenstein, were on their way to the nation’s
Violinist Jenny Liu, a junior at Amity High School, had the
opportunity to play for Bell.
“I’ve always watched Joshua Bell perform on PBS
… I think he has a great personal style,” she
Liu, who will turn 17 on January 14, studied privately at
Neighborhood Music School for 10 years — the last eight
with Fiona Murray — and still plays in the school-run
Greater New Haven Youth Orchestra.
Liu now studies with Elizabeth Faidley, who teaches at The
Hartt School. On November 22, Liu performed in Weill Recital
Hall at Carnegie Hall as part of the Alexander & Buono
International String Competition Winners’ Recital. Liu
was a first-prize winner in the high-school division.
For Bell, Liu played a portion of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole.
“He asked me what I think about when I start playing,”
She told Bell that she thinks about the mood of the piece
After the workshops, students attended an afternoon concert
that featured performances by Bell, Isbin, Pratt, and Weilerstein.
Liu, who’d never listened to a classical guitarist,
was amazed at how different the instrument is from those used
by rock musicians.
And talking about Pratt, Liu said, “I think he has so
much power to his music … I think everyone was affected
by his playing.”
Green, who’s been a student at Neighborhood Music School
for eight years, described Bell’s performance as “amazing”
and said, “I didn’t expect anything less from
Green was also inspired by Weilerstein’s performance,
particularly “the way she played.”
“The more intense the piece got, the more intense her
face got with it,” he said, intrigued to see “emotion
expressed in such an outward way, musically and physically.”
In their words …
I never expected to be invited to attend a masterclass in
the White House. But two weeks after the phone call, I found
myself being escorted down a long, elegant corridor. Glancing
to my left, I saw a young man with dark, tousled hair and
blue jeans sitting casually, observing the stream of young
musicians. That was Joshua Bell, I suddenly realized. Before
I could steal another look, we were hurried into a room that
buzzed with the anticipation of 40 young violinists from around
the country. Bows flew and voices chattered as we negotiated
our way to our seats. Only a few minutes elapsed before Joshua
Bell strolled into the room and a silence cascaded over the
crowd. My dad told me to take a Sharpie and stow it in my
case so that, if the opportunity for a signature presented
itself, I would be prepared. I thought he was insane at the
time, but I was grateful when all the others were scrambling
for scraps of paper. Few people can claim that the “scribble”
on their violin case was hurriedly scrawled by the hand of
Joshua Bell. To me, it is a tangible reminder of November
4, 2009.— Lily Engbith
On October 28, 2009, my guitar teacher, Mr. Alex Vlassenkov,
called my father and told him that I was one of 18 students
from Neighborhood Music School who had been invited to the
White House for the Classical Music Classroom Program. When
my father told me about the invitation, I couldn’t believe
my ears. I was thrilled! I was going to have the opportunity
to learn a few techniques from one of the greatest classical
guitar players, Ms. Sharon Isbin, and also to meet the First
Lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama. On November 3, 2009, we left New
Haven on a bus for Maryland. At our hotel in Maryland, we
got acquainted with one another, played a lot of games, and
practiced our instruments. The next day, we enjoyed a delicious
breakfast, got dressed up, packed our belongings, and got
on the bus again. We were on our way to the White House. Before
we went to the White House, we visited the Washington Monument,
Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and some other fascinating
sites in Washington, D.C. It took a pretty long time to get
into the White House because we had to check-in our belongings
and the security guards had to verify each person’s
identification. I had a smile on my face the whole time we
were in the White House. I couldn’t believe that I,
Kwame Asiedu, had actually stepped foot in the White House.
We were divided into groups according to the instruments we
play, so I was put in the guitar group. There were a lot of
guitarists from all over the nation. After we were all settled,
Sharon Isbin led a workshop that involved learning some important
techniques for playing the guitar. From what she taught us,
I realized that she was truly one of the best. These techniques
will really help me with my guitar playing. I learned how
to improvise, not make a “squeak” when moving
up and down the fret board, not build so much tension in my
hand, and many more enriching skills! After we were done,
we went into the room where Mrs. Michelle Obama was going
to give her speech. After about 15 minutes, a man announced
her arrival by saying, rather loudly, “Ladies and gentlemen,
the First Lady of the United States.” When she entered
the room, I thought I was dreaming. I am a really big fan
of her and I see her on television all the time, and the fact
that I was looking at the First Lady of the United States
of America seemed so unreal. When she got on the podium, she
welcomed us to the White House and told us that we were there
because of our outstanding achievements in music. Her speech
really got to me. She told us that it was because of people
like us that the world is such a fascinating place. She said
the music we play really makes a difference in people’s
lives and she advised us to practice playing our various instruments
all the time, although this may be difficult. “You’ll
learn that if you believe in yourself and put in your best
effort, there is nothing you can’t achieve,” Mrs.
Obama said. This was a very touching and encouraging speech.
After her speech, there were performances by Sharon Isbin,
Joshua Bell, Alisa Weilerstein, and Awadagin Pratt. They were
phenomenal! I was interviewed by some people from the White
House and the interview can be found at www.whitehouse.gov.
Then it was off to the buses for our long ride back home.
When we arrived in New Haven, my parents were at Neighborhood
Music School to meet me. I couldn’t wait to tell them
about my most exciting trip. — Kwame Asiedu
In November, the White House invited Neighborhood Music School
to participate in the Community Classroom Music Series. My
trip to the White House has been one of the greatest experiences
of my life. Whether it was getting selected to be on this
trip in the first place, or being inside the White House,
I was honored to be a part of this. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro
came to say some nice words to us at the Capitol. Mr. Awadagin
Pratt came to give the piano players a masterclass and gave
us advice on how to be a good musician. Mrs. Obama joined
us for the White House concert. As well as being a great experience,
this trip was also very fun. It helped me bond with many people
from Neighborhood Music School that I didn’t even know
before. All these years taking lessons at Neighborhood Music
School and practicing hard have paid off. This school has
helped greatly in my musical achievement. I could not have
done it without Neighborhood Music School and my teachers
who help me every step of the way, and I would like to thank
them for this trip and the impact they’ve had on my
life. — Corey Chang
Exploring Orchard Street Shul’s past, present, future
This photograph of the Orchard Street
Shul by New Haven-based photographer Paul Duda is also
part of the exhibition.
Every once in a while a cultural event takes place in the
community that reminds us that art is serious business.
Such is the case with the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage
Artists Project, a multi-media art exhibition on display through
January 31, 2010, at the John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary
Art in New Haven. For this exhibition, a group of artists
came together to explore the past, present, and future of
Congregation Beth Israel and its synagogue, known informally
as the Orchard Street Shul.
The exhibition explores history and religious tradition, art
and free expression, the power of artists to inform public
debate, the complex process of creating a community-based
arts event outside the boundaries of professional arts organizations,
and other themes.
The project began in 2008 when Rabbi Mendy Hecht, the congregation’s
spiritual leader, telephoned Cynthia Beth Rubin, a New Haven-based
new-media artist, and asked if she would consider organizing
an art exhibition that would bring new people to the shul.
Rubin, who is not a member of the shul, had long been interested
in history, memory, and place. She convened a meeting in which
a group of local artists discussed the exhibition idea with
the shul’s leadership and the Cultural Heritage Artists
Project was born. From the beginning, it has been a collaborative
effort, with Rubin serving as project coordinator.
Why now? The Orchard Street Shul, which is listed in the National
Register of Historic Places, is deteriorating. It was once
a thriving orthodox house of worship in a bustling immigrant
neighborhood. In 1913, Jewish immigrants, primarily from Eastern
Europe and Russia, established Congregation Beth Israel. In
1924, after initially worshiping in a storefront, they built
a new synagogue at 232 Orchard Street, its present location.
At the time, theirs was one of about 20 synagogues operating
in New Haven.
During the urban renewal era of the 1950s and ’60s,
the shul’s Legion Avenue neighborhood – along
with the Oak Street neighborhood – was destroyed and
replaced with what is now Route 34/the Oak Street Connector.
Many Jews relocated to the suburbs. Few synagogues remained
in New Haven; most were claimed by urban renewal.
The shul, along with its original interior and artifacts,
survived. But today only about 60 families are dues-paying
members, and most belong to other congregations, as well.
The walls of the shul are cracking, its steps crumbling, its
windows deteriorating. The building’s future is uncertain.
“We are responding as public citizens who believe in
history and legacy,” says Rubin, reflecting on this
critical moment in the shul’s history. The exhibition,
she believes, represents “something that all of us as
artists can do” – that is, enter communities at
moments of change, challenge, and decision-making, and respond
The exhibition comes at a time, Rubin explains, when more
and more artists are moving out of the studio and into the
“Many of us have come to a point where we welcome the
opportunity to make content that will speak to a broader audience,”
In its call to artists, which was distributed locally and
nationally, the project’s Artistic Committee –
a group of eight artists serving as curators – stipulated
that participating artists had to create new work “responding
to the environment, history, or architecture of the Orchard
Street Shul.” Artists were required to visit the shul
at least once before producing their work.
“There is this incredible stenciling on the ceiling
and the walls, beautiful patterning that feels like its roots
are in Europe,” says New Haven-based artist Suzan Shutan,
reflecting on her first exposure to the shul’s interior.
“But the ceiling has fallen off in chunks. Some areas
were stenciled, some had faded, some had peeled, some had
fallen off. Right there in front of me was this evolutionary
Observations like these formed the seeds of the exhibition.
For every artist, the inspirations were different.
Roslyn Croog, a photographer whose grandparents were among
the shul’s founders and who attended the shul as a young
girl, created a piece that merges digital images of the shul
with pages from the Talmud.
Father and daughter Maya Escobar and Gonzalo Escobar traveled
from Chicago to record interviews with former shul members
and friends. They created a “multisensory exhibition”
that includes audio stories and samples of herring and kichel
for visitors to eat.
Sharon Siskin, an artist based in New York City, saw a wine-colored,
gold-tasseled textile on the shul’s lectern embroidered
with the words “The Ladies Auxiliary of Cong. Beth Israel.”
Siskin’s piece, which is based on a photocopied image
she discovered at the Jewish Heritage Library in New Haven,
explores the identity of orthodox Jewish women in their worshiping
New Haven-based artist David Ottenstein photographed deteriorating
books within the shul.
Ph.D. candidate Chen Xu and professor Holly Rushmeier, computer
scientists at the Computer Graphics Lab in Yale University’s
Department of Computer Science, experimented with ways to
represent the “space, texture and scale” of the
shul through sophisticated virtual tours.
Nancy Austin, a Rhode Island-based artist and historian, began
by imagining herself as a cultural tourist.
“I didn’t really know anything about New Haven,”
she says. “I looked at all of the primary source documents
about the establishment of the Jewish community. Then I looked
at the urban renewal that took place in the 1950s. I looked
at the footprints. Where were all of these synagogues that
were demolished? It is really difficult to find the maps and
documents to locate where these buildings actually were.”
Based on her archival research, Austin created two videos,
including one that simulates the experience of a cultural
tourist with GPS technology. She is one of several artists
exploring the history and legacy of urban renewal.
The exhibition includes the work of 34 artists, about half
of whom live in the Greater New Haven area. Participating
artist Jeanne Criscola of Hamden designed the exhibition catalogue.
In addition to photographs and artists’ statements,
the catalogue includes scholarly essays. The eminent historian
Hasia R. Diner places the Orchard Street Shul within the larger
context of American Jewish history. Walter Cahn, an esteemed
architectural historian, writes about the building itself.
In conjunction with the exhibition, several conversations
with participating artists will take place at the John Slade
Ely House. But art is the first responder here, and that’s
“Artists have spent their careers synthesizing information
in a way that is different from scholars,” says Rubin.
“The arts include things that can’t be verbalized.”
For Rubin and her colleagues, creating the exhibition was
“We started with the premise that there was this particular
community – the shul community – that needed to
be given voice,” Rubin says.
The group then set out to integrate history, place, research,
culture, and community, all through intense collaboration
“We feel we’re pioneers,” says Rubin. “We
are inventing a new form of community art.”
The process has not been without its challenges. Advance press
surrounding the exhibition – published locally in the
New Haven Register and the New Haven Independent
– has focused on the charge of censorship leveled by
Richard Kamler, a well-known San Francisco-based artist whose
acceptance into the show was ultimately revoked.
Kamler’s work, right around the corner, was
inspired by the shul’s present-day proximity to Masjid
Al-Islam, a mosque located on George Street one block from
the shul. Today, the mosque is a neighborhood anchor, not
unlike the shul was years ago. To create his piece, Kamler
– who is Jewish – cut strips of paper text from
copies of the Torah and the Koran, then wove the strips into
a tablecloth, which he placed atop a table.
In the middle of the table, he rested a bowl containing two
books, the Torah and the Koran. Kamler intended, he said,
to “create a context for communication” between
local Jewish and Muslim communities. He envisioned that religious
leaders would engage in real-time conversation around the
table as part of his piece.
The Cultural Heritage Artists Project exhibition guidelines,
which were specified in the call to artists, state, in part:
“In keeping with the intention of celebrating heritage
and cultural diversity, we ask that all work produced for
this project maintain respect for the synagogue as the spiritual
home of an ongoing segment of New Haven’s Jewish Community,
and as the legacy of past generations.”
According to its press statement, the Artistic Committee “ultimately
found that Richard Kamler’s work fell outside of the
guidelines.” Of particular concern to the committee
was Kamler’s treatment of sacred texts.
Kamler’s cause has been championed by the National Coalition
Against Censorship (NCAC). For Kamler and the NCAC, the incident
constitutes censorship in the broader cultural – though
not legal – sense of the word. The curators reject this
claim and stated, in a press release: “Ultimately free
expression must include the right of artists and partners
to define the guidelines for their exhibitions, and by extension,
the right of refusal for works which fail to meet the guidelines.”
“I try not to use the word censorship,” says Robert
C. Post, dean of the Yale Law School and an expert on the
First Amendment. “People spin it around and I don’t
think it helps much. What is important to talk about
is, what are the deeper questions here, what are the stakes
in this controversy, and how could it have been handled differently?”
Both Rubin and Kamler have expressed an interest in continuing
the debate over the delicate interplay between community arts,
curatorial discretion, and artistic freedom.
But today, the exhibition stands as a testament to the hard
work of a group of artists who wanted to do something positive
in and for the community. The artists operated on a shoestring
budget. They were not commissioned and covered their own expenses.
Exhibition sponsors include the Jewish Federation of Greater
New Haven, Congregation Beth Israel, and the John Slade Ely
For some artists, the impetus to participate in the show began
as something intellectual. For others, like Croog, the meaning
is more personal.
“I believe a place remembers everything that has happened
there,” says Croog. “Sometimes, when I walk into
the shul, I can hear voices rising up. They used to have meals
downstairs, and sometimes I can smell the smell of food rising
up. I hope people will realize what a precious gem we have
here and will want to become affiliated with the shul and
take part in its renovation and preservation.”
Whatever happens to the synagogue, the Orchard Street Shul
Cultural Heritage Artists Project raises important questions
about art and community history. At a time when religious
congregations across New Haven and the nation are struggling
to survive economically, this exhibition asks all of us to
imagine what happens when neighborhoods are razed, when people
move away, and when the buildings where people once expressed
their most deeply-held beliefs are left behind for the reckoning
of future generations.
If You Go
Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project
On exhibit through January 31, 2010
John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven
Events & Conversations: January 10, 17,
For more information, visit orchardstreetshul-artistsproject.org
All events are free and open to the public.
For Urban Explorers
For an on-the-ground view of the Orchard Street Shul and its
neighborhood, pick up a copy of Colin Caplan’s book
A Guide to Historic New Haven, Connecticut and follow
the Dwight Neighborhood Driving Tour.
Urban Renewal was a national post-war movement, vigorously
embraced by New Haven’s local political leaders. For
more information, visit the New Haven Museum and Historical
Society (newhavenmuseum.org) or explore Douglas W. Rae’s
book City: Urbanism and Its End.
Learning how to read again
On December 17, the Listen Here! short-story reading series
will have concluded its fall season. This community arts project
was the result of a collaboration of the New Haven Review,
the literary arts journal of the Elm City; the New Haven Theater
Company, a community-based theatrical group; the Arts Council
of Greater New Haven; and four area coffee shops. The arrangement
was simple enough: New Haven Review staff selected
the short stories, New Haven Theater Company actors paired
off to deliver dramatic half-hour readings every Thursday
night at 7pm; the Arts Council supplied much of the marketing;
and the coffeehouses – Koffee on Audubon, Blue State
Coffee, Lulu: A European Coffeehouse, and Manjares Fine Pastries
– provided the venues.
No one knew for certain if this all-volunteer effort would
succeed. But all agreed that even if just two people sat down
to listen, they were going to get as good a show as would
50. Our first night we had 25 attend, a number that remained
steady throughout the series. The only exceptions were: October
22, when, for reasons that remain a mystery, nearly 40 people
crashed Lulu, spilling out onto the sidewalk to listen; and
the following week, when, following coverage of the series
in The New York Times, some 60 listeners broke several
New Haven fire codes to fill Manjares Fine Pastries in Westville.
Listen Here! has been quite the education on the intricacies
of proper story selection and the art of dramatic reading.
Our original model was Symphony Space’s “Selected
Shorts,” universally recognized by Saturday NPR listeners.
The distinction between the two, however, couldn’t be
greater. First and foremost, “Selected Shorts”
costs money to attend! Second, it is performed in a theatrical
space. And finally, it features prominent actors as readers.
Our little endeavor is quite purposely … well …
Listen Here! was conceived as a community endeavor.
The idea of charging was anathema. Our venues would be places
where folks congregate already, and our readers would be actors
from the community. Of course, this didn’t
mean that we didn’t want to pay story selectors or actors,
or that we wouldn’t have happily taken free theater
space or refused Sam Waterston had he wanted to read for us.
But we agreed that for this round – our first season,
if you will – we would take it on the chin and learn
as we went.
And, boy, did we learn!
The logistics of organizing the series were mercifully simple:
send e-mails to our respective lists, show up with a stool
and music stand, and read away – no set designs, no
ticketing, no music pits; just actors and their voices, audiences
and their drinks.
Of course, this isn’t to minimize the work story selectors
and actors put in. Story selection, for example, easily illustrated
personal limits as I ran up against the grim reality that
my knowledge of contemporary short-story writing was weak.
This led me to turn to better-read friends whose tasted I
trusted. My education has improved steadily with each reading,
where we circulate a sign-up sheet that asks attendees their
names, e-mail addresses, and favorite writers. The results
have been illuminating. In addition to classic authors –
Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, John
Steinbeck – listeners have asked us to consider Robert
Walser, George Saunders, Richard Brautigan, Jane Gardam, and
others for future readings.
The art of selection, however, lies not merely in knowing
a lot of stories. It also depends on determining which stories
work in the given situation, something the actors had to teach
me. Since Listen Here! is an hour-long program, reading time
is critical. And while a good actor can manipulate the reading
tempo, stories can also set the speed.
When T. Paul Lowry, New Haven Theater Company’s creative
director and producer, took on Dave Eggers’ “After
I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” (read
Nov. 5), he showed that a story that begins: “Oh, I’m
a fast dog. I’m fast-fast. It’s true and I love
being fast I admit it I love it. You know fast dogs. Dogs
that just run by and you say, Damn! That’s a fast dog!
Well that’s me …” has to be read quickly.
Now contrast that with Sharen McKay’s reading of Steve
Almond’s “Soul Molecule” (read November
19), which she filled with pregnant pauses as the narrator
tells of meeting a college friend years later, who, with his
parents subsequently joining the luncheon, earnestly explains
their abduction by aliens and the cartridges that have been
placed in their heads.
In brief, it’s not enough to know the word count –
though that helps. One must also get a sense of the story’s
vocal pacing. Besides timing, there is also the question of
pairing. In the course of selecting stories, my approach was
to read widely and generate a short list worth performing
aloud. Next came putting stories together under a thematic
heading. Sometimes pairings were obvious, as in the case of
Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews”
and Melvin Bukiet’s “The Golden Calf and the Red
Heifer,” read before the Jewish High Holidays on September
17. Sometimes they were less obvious, purposely so, in fact,
as in the case of Jim Shepard’s “Courtesy for
Beginners” and Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery
Where Al Jolson is Buried,” both read on October 1 under
the title “In Loco Parentis.” In the end, some
stories didn’t make it into this season’s programming,
if only because proper pairings could not be made.
When we conceived Listen Here! our take on it was simple:
Who doesn’t like being read to? The past is never far
from the present, and that translation in time to our childhood
when our parents read to us caringly and lovingly, with heartfelt
commitment to the story and to us, is what Listen Here! seeks
to recreate. For that reason and many others we would add
but for lack of space, we hope you will join us for our spring
season (March-May 2010) when Listen Here! will present new
readers and new stories for your listening pleasure.
Bennett Lovett-Graff is publisher of the New Haven Review.
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